Sunday, March 6, 2016

Are Kids Really Resilient?

Are kids Really Resilient?

Recently it was brought to my attention that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is currently telling foster parents that the research (from Dr. Bruce Perry one of the leading experts on trauma- senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy) shows that kids are resilient and that separating children from an established care-giver does not have the effect on them we once thought it did.  As a counselor who works in the field of adoption and with challenging children, my experience tells me otherwise.  I often hear adults say that kids will “get over it” (a death, a move, a loss, abuse or other traumatic events that would completely undo most adults).  As Dr. Bruce Perry puts it, “of course they get over it, they have no choice!”  But Perry continues by affirming that during the course of “getting over it” the child loses a piece of themselves- the fundamentals of their true emotional, behavioral, cognitive and social potential are weakened (Perry, 2013).  With so much research and information about the brain and how children are impacted by change, trauma, and lack of secure attachments, why, oh why, are we still holding onto the lore that kids will be fine no matter what happens to them? I would like to discredit the myth that all children are naturally resilient. It is my hope that we will learn how we can build stronger and more resilient kids able to overcome adversity and distress.  

Since my state’s child welfare system used Dr. Bruce Perry to justify their position, this essay will look at what Dr. Perry and other leaders in the field of trauma and attachment have to say about resilience and attachment. According to Dr. Perry, “persistence in the destructive myth that ‘children are resilient’ will prevent millions of children, and our society, from meeting their true potential. It need not be so.” (Perry, 2013).  Dr. Perry also says that resilient children are not born, they are made. He further states in numerous articles found at www., that children are not really resilient, they are moldable-for better or for worse. What I found is that children are at times what we might call resilient, but rarely is it by happen chance. Perry teaches four key factors that affect a child’s ability to be resilient.

The first factor according to Dr. Perry, is temperament. Some children are born with a higher tolerance level to stress and adversity. As infants and in early childhood, these children are usually easy to comfort and feel secure.  Not all children are this way, some are very sensitive to any distress internally or environmentally and they are not easy to calm.  Perry also notes that research is showing that the ability to overcome stress has a great deal to do with the mother’s level of stress, anxiety and distress during pregnancy (Perry, 2006). The stress hormones are passed to the child in the womb. Research shows that mother’s with a stable life, good nutrition, with no alcohol or drugs during pregnancy have children with easier to sooth personalities.

Secondly, Perry proves that no matter what the temperament of the child is, the ability to deal with stressors is molded by the child’s caregivers. A calm, experienced caregiver can create what Dr. Karyn Purvis calls “felt safety” for the child (Purvis, 2013). It is also true that an anxious, inexperienced and isolated caregiver can cause more issues, create more sensitivities, and mold a child less capable of dealing with stress.  Dr. Perry emphasizes that the fit between the caregiver and the child plays an important role in developing resilience (Perry, 2006).

Healthy Attachments are the third factor in building resilience in children. Dr. Perry says that kids with poor bonding, and children who are isolated with limited or disrupted social and emotional connections are very susceptible to distress (Perry, 2006). These children often carry with them symptoms such as impulsivity, aggression, inattention and depression. Perry and attachment theory specialists all agree that connection with others and a child’s ability to relate to other people is a strength that progresses in the early years of life within the caregiver-child interaction.

The last factor in building resilience is that children need opportunities to practice building their stress response systems through gradual exposure to challenges in motor, social, emotional and cognitive areas. The slow but sure learning of new skills, while feeling safe, gives a child experience in building confidence and over time, resilience (Perry, 2006). In a loving and nurturing home environment and within a safe and caring community, children are able to fail, succeed and overcome difficulties (Purvis, 2013). This helps them to overcome greater difficulties and to take risks needed to succeed.

 “Adults interpret the actions, words and expressions of children through the distorted filter of their own beliefs. In the lives of most infants and children, these common adult misinterpretations are relatively benign. In many cases, however, these misinterpretations can be destructive. The most dramatic example occurs when the impact of traumatic events on infants and young children is minimized. It is an ultimate irony that at the time when the human is most vulnerable to the effects of trauma-during infancy and childhood-adults generally presume the most resilience.” (Perry, 2013).

Over and over through researching attachment, trauma and resilience, I have found the family, whether it is foster, adoptive or biological, to be the essential support for the child and the greatest healing agent. It really does matter, when faced with adversity, trauma or difficulties, what our relational capabilities are. The sudden death, the abrupt move, and an unexpected separation may all ruin present emotional connection, often producing fear and intense emotional pain (Perry, 2006). As adults wemay know to reach out for help from those close to us to make sense of what is happening when faced with tough situations. In our struggle we may cling to what is familiar and look for help to make it through. For most children, loss and fear go hand in hand (Perry, 2010 and Purvis, 2013).  Children do not know what will happen to them next or how to process loss, grief and they are afraid. Other emotions intensify when fear is at the core.  Children with fear responses often struggle to concentrate in school, they typically misread and misunderstand social cues, and can be immature socially and behaviorally.

I couldn’t agree with Dr. Perry more when he says that as a society we need greater understanding that unpredictable, inconsistent, abusive or neglectful caregiving in early childhood changes the normal development of neural systems involved in both relationships and the stress response (Perry, 2010). This understanding needs to affect our policies and practices as well as our parenting. Research proves over and over it is through patterned, repetitive neural stimulations provided by consistent, nurturing, predictable, responsive caregivers that the brain gets what is needed to produce the capacity for healthy attachments and self-regulation (Perry, 2010). Over and over the findings are showing relationships in childhood can change the vulnerability-resilience stability for the child.  Understanding healthy social and emotional development in children emphasizes why disruptions and disorganized attachment has far reaching repercussions.

Dr. Perry defines attachment as a continuing relationship with a specific person that is characterized by soothing, comfort, pleasure and safety (Perry, 2013). Clearly we must see there is power in relationships to rebuild or to damage children. Healthy interactions, emotional connections and nurturing caregivers offer a strong basis for surviving. Children who have experienced loss in attachments, seldom feel safe when placed in new healthy caregiving situations. They often work to circumvent close relationships. They don’t form secure attachments easily. Caregivers who provide a safe and healthy relationship to children impacted by multiple moves, and early trauma must understand and know how to establish predictable routines, create connections, be attuned, attentive and committed and provide solid therapeutic treatment in order for children to heal (Purvis, 2005).

Unfortunately, our existing mental health, child welfare and judicial systems as well as child placing agencies seem to be unaware of these essential finding in development, attachment and trauma (Perry, 2010). Children are moved from therapist to therapist, school to school, foster home to foster home, community to community. Our systems often intensify or even repeat the relational impermanence and trauma in a child’s life (Perry, 2010). It is presumed therapy or healing will take place in the child through superficial relational interactions with poorly nurturing strangers. And at great cost to our children our systems rate far too low the powerful therapeutic impact of a caring foster parent, a teacher, a coach, a neighbor or many other would-be healers.

After looking through article after article on development of attachments and creating resilience in children I want to make clear from the findings that resilience is predominantly fostered by the strength of a child’s connection to his core groups. The importance of attachment has been widely studied and it is time practices and policies catch up with research. The fitness of the parents or caregivers is the most substantial variable in the child’s well-being and we must give it equal merit in our decisions when placing children.  Probably the most important lesson is when children begin to feel safe, they become free to heal, learn and grow. This sense of security should not be taken lightly when making decisions about a child’s resiliency or ability to attach.  


Perry (2006) Resilience: Where Does it Come From? Found on

Perry, B.D. & Ludy-Dobson, Christine R., (2010). Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of play. Edited by Eliana Gil)

Perry B.D. (2013) “Children are not resilient, children are malleable”.  Excerpts from Childhood Trauma, the Neurobiology of Adaptation, and ‘Use-dependent’ Development of the Brain: How ‘States’ Become ‘Traits’.

Purvis, Karyn, Phd & Cross, David, PhD (April 2013). From Fostering Families Today.

For more information go to  and or

Friday, July 11, 2014

Parents and Power Struggles: The Things I Don’t Fight With My Kids About

                I don’t know many parents who do not at times find themselves in battles with their children over issues of control and power in the family. As a mom and especially now as an adoptive mom I experience different levels of power struggles pretty much every day-mine and the kids. Working with abused children taught me a great deal about our human nature and how all of us, in many ways, struggle to be in control of our environment, our individual lives and more often than not, others.  I work with a lot of parents who have adopted children who are engaged in power struggle on a daily basis as they and their children fight for control.

                This is a really touchy subject because so many of the things we fight with our children about are what might be considered standard parenting practice. As parents we often feel we have certain things we have to make our children do or else we are failures as parents. When I ask parents why the chores are important, or why they must make sure all the homework is done correctly, often it is because of their own anxiety about being a good parent and doing what all good parents should do. The truth is, we don’t know how our kids are going to turn out, or what they will ultimately choose to do with their lives, but at the end of the day we want to at least know we made them wash behind their ears, eat the right food and grounded them when they broke the rules….right?

                What if it isn’t right? What if instead of reacting and trying to gain the upper hand because we are afraid for our own loss of power and control, we could take a step back and get ahold of the relationship first? What if making a connection becomes the goal rather than taking charge? What if learning to be responsible first starts with learning how to have basic human connections and how to repair relationships? What if it is truly impossible to function in healthy ways when we feel isolated, chaotic, stressed and full of fear?  The truth is, it is necessary for our children to feel safe, love, seen, cherished and be connected to us in order for them to grow, heal, and make the best choices. All of us function better when we are experiencing connection and relationship.

                When a child says no to us, it creates a stress reaction in the parent, and that often sends an avalanche of fear emotions on the parent’s side. These emotions include anger, jealousy, defiance, and depression. These emotions also trigger fear reactions in others as well. You can’t see your child’s fear if you are in a self-protective mode brought on by your own fear and stress. Bryan Post says that when we see the behavior and go into our reaction, we hit a wall. This is where we stop connecting and start trying to gain control or shut down.  Have you ever said, “I am the mom and it has to be this way”? What you are reacting to is the fear that if it isn’t my way, I am not going survive either. As soon as you start to react instead of responding, you are entering a power struggle that can escalate as quickly as you allow.

                A power struggle works because two are willing to hold onto their defenses, but what happens when I let go of the rope and stop pulling against or striving to win? What if instead I start to work to build connection, provide safety and draw into the relationship the best I can? When I get to the place where I can observe the behavior without judging it, when I can see their inner struggle and the fear and stress in me and in the child,  that is when I move from trying to kill the behavior to actually honoring the place it comes from. This might mean that for the time being, the chore doesn’t get done, his teeth don’t get brushed, his room is a mess or she does roll her eyes and maybe even talks with disrespect.

                But honestly, what is so important about chores, homework, brushing teeth or always having a good attitude that it overshadows building deep connections, helping our children to overcome fear, and learning to repair relationships?  Maybe we do need to re-evaluate our lifestyle, change our perspective and re-wire our own thinking. Who cares if the child has a clean room? We are trying to teach them to be human, to function in a family and to stay connected to people even though their trust in every adult has been broken. Creating more stress isn’t going to make things better. Trying to strong arm them into doing what we want isn’t going to help them lower their defenses. Many times, the lesson that needs to be learned is that my child’s behavior will change when mine does.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

New Lessons in Self Compassion

All through counselor training,  I have been taught the value of self-care both in school and out of school. The emotional and mental wear of helping people can drain a person quicker than they can say, "I need a break." But at the same time, doing what you love can feed your soul and spark greater personal development just a quickly. None-the-less, I have been doing some reading on the value of Self Compassion and what it really entails and especially, what it would like for parents and their over anxious children.

I discovered (thanks to another great therapist- Charmaine Chavez) a whole lot of research done by Kristin Neff and her colleagues. If you have the time, please look up Self Compassion and Kristin Neff and just watch her videos. Excellent. I realized as I looked over her materials just how leery I was personally to think too much about my own need for self kindness. I was worried it would make me selfish and perhaps it was "unchristian" to really be nice to me. But what I found out through the research helped me see all of this differently.


If we are open hearted to our selves, we will have more to give, not less. We have to invite ourselves to be compassionate toward our self in order to even have anything to give to others. Remember the oxygen mask...put it on first and then help others. Or what about the truth of "Love your neighbor as yourself"?  If we are hard on ourselves it comes out in critical nature toward others or our judgments of others and our self. Neff does a good job of talking about the difference between self esteem (which judges ours and others self worth) and how it is different than self compassion which teaches us to relate to ourself flaws and all.

As a counselor I found the research in the benefits of teaching and practicing self compassion were incredible. A person's self criticism often gets them stuck in anxiety, depression and over defensive coping skills such as perfectionism and rumination. Self compassion helps us to balance the needs of others and our own needs while giving us constructive responses to various problems we all face. It frees us from needing to control others and allows for more acceptance and open-hearted responses to meeting people where they are in their journey.

By far the most exciting part of my discoveries (with more to come I hope), was the tie to secure attachment and self compassion. I work with families who are struggling to help their hurt children heal and form secure attachments. Secure attachment is the feeling of being safe, supported, loved and accepted. It is vital in helping people to be resilient in the midst of stress or struggles.  Without it people are distrustful, full of self doubt, emotionally unbalanced, fearful, have reduced intimacy, defensive, lack self awareness and often deeply hate themselves.

Neff found that the degree to which people are kind to themselves is correlated to how kind they are to others and in turn is linked to higher levels of intimacy and less controlling behaviors. People with lower self compassion tend to be more controlling, domineering, verbally aggressive, over-reactive and detached. Our children who have not formed secure attachments have a difficult time connecting with others and often display all of the issues noted above. I am always looking for interventions and ways to help parents form attachments with their children and to help them build trust within their family. What I learned from Neff's research is going to be a part of helping our families heal.

Secure attachment earlier in life produces self compassion later, and learning self compassion can also foster secure attachments in relationships---GOOD NEWS! Our early family experiences play a big role in our personal self compassion or lack there of. And what we are finding out this also is huge in attachment issues.

So how do we teach our children to be self compassionate?

It starts with mindfulness. Noticing the different emotions and thoughts we are experiencing at the moment. But it is also learning to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses in the moment as well.
This is where counseling comes in, we help people discover things about themselves.
The work Healthy Foundations has been doing with children from hard places was already incorporating many of the interventions I found in the research. For example to use of teaching children to be still. We call it calm + five. then there was "Sitting like a frog", we use "strong sitting" and mindfulness teachers recommend doing away with time out. We teach parents how use time-in. We found helping parents to identify the feeling behind the behavior helps the child to be more mindful. The research pointed out that mindfulness helps children to concentrate, builds self control and actually increases activity in the frontal cortex.

So many benefits. I can't wait to discover more. If you want to help your kids remember you have to practice self compassion first.
Ask yourself....are you allowed to be nice to yourself?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Your Facebook Friends?

After a difficult week or so of dealing with children, teens and women who have been hurt by those who are supposed to care for and protect them I have found myself more than a little annoyed lately by social media, fake friendships and well-meaning but duped people who can't seem to unfriend the unfriendly.  What I mean is --Why the hell is that person (you know the one who raped and beat your sister in law, or abused your nephew, or the one that told so many lies about you you can't believe your friends and family still communicate with him) on your Facebook wall? Why are they counted among your friends? Why are do they feel welcome at your potluck, or dinner table when you should be visiting them in jail?

Listen, I understand you don't want to be unfriendly. I know you hope you can change them. Maybe you even think you can be friends with everyone and not ever need to take a stand at all. But who do you really think you are helping? Abusers are awesome at making friends and confusing people about the facts. They often play the victim, they seldom come completely clean with their past and they lie! If you know someone was abused and you continue to be friends with their abuser you are not helping either one.If you feel you must invite them to your church, or into your life, then be godly and speak truth and for goodness sake don't play into their victim mentality. Ask tough questions, learn the facts and hold them accountable.

Here is a checklist from Lundy Bancroft (2007) on assessing if the abuser has changed: (sorry about the male references-abusers can be male or female):
  • Admitting fully to what he has done
  • stopping excuses
  • Stopping all blaming of her (or others)
  • Making ammends
  • Accepting responsiblity
  • Identifying his own patterns of controlling behavior and not excusing them
  • Identifying the attitudes that drive his or her abuse
  • Accepting that changing these patterns will be a decade long process, and not declaring oneself cured
  • Not demanding credit for improvements made
  • Not using improvements as credit against real accountablity
  • Sharing power
  • Owning his part completely
  • Changing how he/she responds to his/her partner and others grieveness
  • Changing his parenting and how he treats the other parent
  • Accepts consequences for actions, without feeling sorry for self. Or blaming the law, the judge, the abused or the system in anyway

If you really want to help, push them into treatment, counseling and hold them accountable for what they did. Help those they have left bleeding in the dust. Support those you say you care about by refusing to help the abuser hide behind his/her nice, christian facade.
For me this last week, I was empowered to hear another counselor say plainly to an abusive mother who suddenly showed up to help "care for her daughter":

"I know what you you did to your daughter. And it is reprehensible. If you truly care about her you will get in your car, go back home and get help to fix what is broken in you."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Value of Connection: Parenting From the Inside Out

There is great value in building relationship with our children on a foundation of trust and love. With our hurt kids from hard places this is where we have to start. We have to first build trust through creating felt safety. And we must also understand that the child may not feel safe, may not trust and may not love or be loved in a way we try to offer it. The impact of trauma has effect on even the simplistic functioning of their ability to connect in relationships. What often makes this difficult is that trauma is misinterpreted by its symptoms.
If you find that hard to believe look at how many of children from hurt places have been diagnosed with attention and conduct disorders. We know Children from hurt places respond to safe and calm environments in unusual ways. Many times it feels like the child is pushing for strict and harsh discipline-and perhaps they are so they can feel in control of when it happens and go to a place of familiar patterns. But harsh responses can cause further and long-lasting problems for children from hurt places.
A lot of children who come from hard places will have several difficulties all at once— from sleep and attention problems, difficulties with fine motor control and coordination, social and relational delays and deficits and speech and language problems with abnormalities in sleep, play, arousal, appetite, moods and impulse control. Children who act in the ways we have described are indeed in some kind of pain. Pain makes people irritable, anxious, and aggressive. Surrounding the pain is a barrier of fear which also builds walls for protection, making connecting even more difficult.
Another factor to this is that most children from hard places are accustomed to people around them who react to whatever happens to them next. There is very little proactive, impulse control or decision making happening around them.  Dr. Bruce Perry says that children are more vulnerable to trauma than adults-resilience is made, not born. Children become resilient by learning new patterns in handling stress and from the nurturing they receive as this is proven to change their neurological system to stress. When you parent from a relationship base of building connections through safety and trust it means going beyond the behavior and beyond the consequences to see behavior as communication. From what we now know about brain development and functioning we know trauma related behavior is a response to stress and stress responders are triggered by the trauma. Brain research and our experiences tell us when we are stressed we are not able to build relationships. We can’t think as clearly nor can we interact appropriately. Stress causes confusion but it also constricts us emotionally leaving very little room for the brain to function relationally.
In order to stay connected and present with the child, even while they are kicking and screaming, we first have to view what is happening within the child differently. They aren’t being bad, they aren’t making a choice-they are having difficulty regulating their overflow of feelings, feelings they are too afraid to even get close to when things are calm…Big reactions keep them safe from exploring their deeper needs and feelings.  We must also remember there is nothing logical or rational happening in that moment for the child. This is not a teachable moment. It is a moment to just ride through the storm with them.  When we stay with our children and ride out the storms, we find greater healing and give them tools to regulate emotions. Patience, love, consistency, care, are no short term cures. Taking time to pay attention and to listen is key. When you take the time to see the world from the child’s perspective you help them to feel safer. This is about building a foundation for your child. Your child has to deal with his issues of confusion and fear before he can demonstrate love and appreciation for you bringing him home.
Why do we have to work so hard to connect with some kids? Our children from hurt places are attachment challenged. They are challenged in their ability to make positive, healthy attachments.  They are not equipped to be in a relationship. Fear does not build relationships and when a child’s brain is still operating in survival mode they are in fear and chaos inside. So asking if they know you love them, or to say they love you…might make us feel better, but there are holes in the foundation we actively must repair for them to really feel and understand what those words mean.
Because trauma even that which is caused by neglect, causes overloads of stress on a person’s response systems, marked by a lack of control, treatment must start by creating a safe environment…not just physically safe, but one the child is safe in emotionally too. This is done in the context of family—predictable, respectful relationships are built best in nurturing home base places for children. This is where a child is able to feel safe, and then gain a sense of competency and mastery. That is why the thing that works the least is any treatment, any discipline or intervention that forces children with powerful, intimidating tactics.
When we see children who have attachment issues we know we are working with a person who is struggling to handle their responses to stress. They do not have a way to handle their regulatory system…essentially this is a child who is scared (even if they are acting incredibly bold), stressed and living out of their primal survival mode to maintain their very existence. Trauma and our response to it cannot be understood outside the contrast of human relationships…this is what experts in the field of brain development, trauma research and even us counselors know to be true. Relationship trumps methods and really cool techniques every time!
What happens to us is not as impactful as to what it does to the relationships around us—to our loved ones, to ourselves and others around us. Most of our children have been impacted in some way by the shattering of what should have been a steady and solid normal and natural relationship. So even if it happened in utero, or at birth it has an impact. As a result the recovery from trauma and neglect also is all about relationships-rebuilding them. This happens as we strive to build trust, confidence and returning to security and reconnecting to love.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Value of Family

In order to change the way we parent we have to first see parenting and our kids differently. We need a different understanding, a different point of reference. We may need to realize we are not going to see a change in our children’s behavior until there has been significant change in us first. It doesn’t mean we are wrong or doing a bad job but it does require us to see the situation differently. For example, what if like Bryan Post says, instead of trying to get rid the bad behavior, we first honor it? Let's begin to respect the place that it comes from. Post says, “Our bodies and minds are brilliant- they only act out when it's deemed necessary. When we can get to the point that we are able to observe the bad behavior without judging it, maybe we'll be able to understand why it was necessary in the first place”(The Post Institute).

I start by asking myself how a person’s behavior serves them. In other words, how has their defense worked for them, how have they survived and how do they perceive the way they are acting will get them what they need (or feel the most fear about not getting). When I see this, I am continually amazed at our abilities to cope, to survive to keep some measure of control even in chaos. I find I can’t take that away from people, kids or adults without laying a foundation that will at the very least provide them with safety and start to rebuild from there.

A great place to start is to evaluate our goals as a family and what we really want for our children.  In our family what we are creating for their life and for their heritage? What things are foundational, not behavioral, but at the core of what our family is meant to be –what do we feel about our family? Here is a family code I came across several months ago. I have since framed it and keep in a visible spot in our home. It is a great reminder of all I hope we will be as family.

Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable. You will learn this from my words and actions--the lessons on love are in how I treat you and how I treat myself.
I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections.
We will practice courage in our family by showing up, letting ourselves be seen, and honoring vulnerability. We will share our stories of struggle and strength. There will always be room in our home for both.
We will teach you compassion by practicing compassion with ourselves first; then with each other. We will set and respect boundaries; we will honor hard work, hope, and perseverance. Rest and play will be family values, as well as family practices.
You will learn accountability and respect by watching me make mistakes and make amends, and by watching how I ask for what I need and talk about how I feel.
I want you to know joy, so together we will practice gratitude.
I want you to feel joy, so together we will learn how to be vulnerable.
When uncertainty and scarcity visit, you will be able to draw from the spirit that is a part of our everyday life.
Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.
We will laugh and sing and dance and create. We will always have permission to be ourselves with each other. No matter what, you will always belong here.
As you begin your adult journey, the greatest gift that I can give to you is to live and love with my whole heart and to dare greatly.
I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you. Truly, deeply, seeing you.(from unknown)

How do we get there? How do we build this kind of family?

It can start with an honest look at where we are. Are we willing to ask ourselves tough questions?  Do we really need this? (busy-ness, all the activities, to be right, to have kids that are compliant, to be in charge of everything?) In light of those questions we can re-evaluate our life style. Do we need more down time, time and space in every day to slow down and breath? Do we need time to be together, opportunities to interact? In the big picture we need to consider our goals as a family, what are we building…inheritance or heritage?  Look at our life styles…is all we are doing taking us where we want to go? Will we have the kind of family we want if we keep going the way we are? If we do nothing to change our focus or shift in our parenting style where will our family or our children be in five years? Ten years? What will our relationship with them be then? 

With a Change of perspective and we can  re wire our thinking. We need to begin in our homes to need make room for empathy. And teach our children even when we don’t have all the answers or can’t solve all the problems, we can still repair and offer healing and hope. Family is indeed where our story starts.

In your interactions with your children, be aware that your stress is spilling out in every word you speak.  When we are stressed, we lose our connection and the ability to stay relational. We all need someone who will listen and let our emotions be released and be okay with us when we are not well. Big angry feeling and reactions are the way we heal from emotions. As adults we create relationships where we can release our feelings. But we also have to do this as adults for children. This is parenting courageously and honestly and it means in our families it may be messy and there will be some bumping around while we learn how to stay relational in our crises.

Over and over experts like Bryan Post, Heather Forbes and Karyn Purvis tell us, trust and safety is in the relationship! We bring into our parenting our own experiences that hurt us and frightened us. These are not our fault but it is our responsibility to take care of them so we are not triggered. Parenting is emotional work and we need help. While we are created to connect, we must see and act differently to be relational in our parenting. If we lose relationship we don’t have anything to build on except fear and control. Then we get locked into patterns of fear, control, stress, anger and ultimately depression.

In situations when our children are stressed (and we are too) it is helpful to remember, to keep a gripe on hope that we are doing our best, and our child is doing their best. Even if we get upset,  it's just a moment in time (a very tough moment), you'll get through it and can learn from it. When things are calm again, there will be more opportunity for talking, listening, learning and gaining insights.

Showing your child you are able to return to a more calm, and caring state after conflict, will give them hope. As parents we need to model and inspire our children, and teach that it is possible to stay in the relationship when conflicts arise. In doing this for them, you also empower them to be the adolescent, and then adult, who can keep themselves in a relational state.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rewards and Punishments: Finding a Better Way

Most of us we can hardly imagine working with children in any capacity and not use some system of rewards, punishment, incentives or consequences. What I have found in my work with children who are continually challenging the norm, is that by and large what is common does not work. Parents are frustrated, told to amp the consequences, children are labeled oppositional (and they are), rewards seem meaningless and the behavior gets worse. 

The core of a system that relies on rewarding and punishing behaviors has deep roots behaviorism. What Alfie Kohn argues in his book, Punishment by Rewards and what I have come to believe as well through my work with very troubled and hurt kids (who seemed to challenge even the best of practice), is that it does not generate the outcomes we are really hoping for. It for sure isn’t giving parents or teachers what they need to stop the behavior over the long haul.  I have to agree with Kohn on most of what he has written in this book. He says I believe it too that to take what people want or need and offer it on a conditional basis to control how they act produces some deeper issues. It does not for example, promote healthy interactions with people, build relationships or help one feel trust or safety. Which are the core issues we have to address with our children who come to us with past trauma. 

In truth, we use this system of reward and punishment in many arenas of life. It is difficult to wrap our mind around how in the world we would be able to manage children, employees and perhaps ourselves if we did not consider the promises we give if people do certain behaviors and especially if they do them well. We believe that deserving people should be rewarded and that hard work always pays off. Failure happens to those who did not try hard enough. The thing is, this kind of thinking and ingrained value system has great appeal for those who are perhaps more naturally well off.  It does little to give solace to those who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by society or worse by the those meant to care for them. Our kids from hurt places have a deep sense of failure and hopelessness about themselves and the world around them.

But why doesn’t it work to reward or punish? The answer is simple. Rewards do not alter the way a person thinks, their attitudes, internal beliefs and emotional commitments that drive our behaviors. If you think that people are merely creatures acting without thought or moral reasoning you are probably likely to find yourself agreeing with Skinner, that we are only “repertoires of our behaviors”. But if you believe that true actions reflect and emerge from who a person is, who they think they are, or from their feelings, expectations and motivation than it will be easier to understand why interventions that control actions will not really help a child to grow into a generous, caring, responsible adult. 

The problem I see is that as parents and teachers, caregivers we aren’t thinking about the long-term (except with great fear) and our objective is often to gain compliance. Think about it honestly. I hear (and I have said in regards to my own children), “But she just needs to obey.” If our goal in parenting or teaching is to get children to obey an order, to show up on time, to do what they are told, then bribing, and/or threatening may be very sensible options. But if you are working toward long-term quality of relationship, helping children to become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to help your kids to develop good values like responsibility and empathy, then rewards like punishments are ultimately useless and actually if I am truly honest they are counterproductive.

One of the main problems with rewards and punishments in my opinion is the damage it does to relationships and how counterproductive that is to helping us become healthy functioning adults. Brain research has proven over and over the value, the long-lasting change and healing that occurs through connection and relationship. Kohn points out that rewards and punishments flourish in an asymmetrical relationships where one person has the most power. Furthermore it affects peer to peer relationships, siblings, as well as teacher-student and parent-child as performance tends to be weighed and judged and competition increases. In short it makes fostering a sense of community very difficult as we generally become less likely to help someone else win an award.
When we talk about kids who have come to us through adoption, have had trauma and/or may really struggle with attachments and loss of power and control it begins to make sense why a system designed on who has the most power tends to be less than ideal. You are constantly fighting against the fear within the child has of losing power and control as well as damaging your ability to help them to gain a sense of trust and safety so they can let go of their fear. And then when you combine this fear of powerlessness and need for control, and you understand the level of anxiety a child who has experienced unresolved trauma has and the deep-seated belief they are no good and going to fail anyway, there are some immediate problems with a reward-punishment model. 

Most kids I work with are not even willing to play to the game. They rip up sticker charts, refuse to comply and often seem to value punishment over rewards any day of the week. They will work for a day, a week or a month to earn a prize but then go back to their old habits before the reward is even taken out of the box. Other kids are driven by the sticker chart and will follow a behavior plan to the tee, but as soon as the structure is gone we find they still do not have regard for others, empathy or a sense of self or responsibility nor are they any better at making friends or forming secure attachments.

Someone who is raising children or teaching children probably at some level wants to create a caring relationship with that child. Every bit of research I have read about what works in therapy, healing, trauma and how to help people to heal tells us that connection is the most fundamental requirement for a child to grow up healthy and develop a good set of values. Bruce Perry, one my favorites in the field of trauma and brain research and many others confirms for a child to heal, to grow up healthy and develop a good sense of values we must first help a child to feel safe and secure.
We especially want our children to be safe enough to get help when they have problems. As adults we must nurture these relationships. If we have any hope of a child being able to admit mistakes and accept our guidance it is going to happen in relationship not in a power struggle. Building relationship is what Kohn tells us is precisely what rewards and punishment work against. At best, it puts the one who is telling you to trust them in a position of judgment over what you do and whether good or bad things will happen to you…and with our hurt kids they already have had experience with power and control—experiences that taught them enough to know you don’t want anybody else to control you, even your basic need for them is in question. 

Kohn writes, "Rewards and punishments work when they are able to induce a behavior because the person wants to impress or curry favor with the person who hands them out. If the child decides due to experience people are untrustworthy to begin with or that is more empowering to gain punishment rather than fall short of rewards; or if they fear being controlled by someone else then gaining favor with the person also has less value. For a hurt child, and anyone who has a strong sense of self, working to impress someone else is not productive or healthy. It isn’t healthy because what we don’t have is the sort of relationship that is defined by genuine concern and that invites us to take the risk in being open and vulnerable—the sort of relationship that inspires people to do their best and can truly make a difference in their lives." (P.58)

So as we move beyond rewards, punishment and consequences (the new catch phrase for punishment) we begin to consider what a reward system ignores--which is the actual reason behind the behavior. Heather Forbes has great material for schools and parents that ask us to consider what is driving the behavior…Adler asks what purpose does the behavior serve, Purvis tells us to find meaning for the child, and to be mindful ourselves of the child’s trauma history. 

A consequence driven parent might say to a child who will not stay in bed: “If you are not in bed by the count of three, you will not watch tv for a week.” Or it may sound like: “If you stay in bed until morning for 3 nights I will buy that toy you wanted.” But parenting from the inside out requires a person to wonder what is going on and that person would want to find out why the child keeps popping out of bed. There could be any number of reasons and if you are a counselor like myself, you keep going deeper than the “she just wants attention” which is seen as a bad thing in our society. But what we might discover is that maybe she isn’t tired, or maybe she is too tired, making her more restless. Perhaps she craves the down time with mom and dad at the end of a long day, maybe she was abused after lights were out where she lived before but doesn’t have the vocabulary to know what happened and going to bed scares her. Maybe she is wound up because of something that happened at school, or perhaps there are monsters under the bed or at the window or maybe she really is afraid you are going to forget she is there if you don’t see her every ten minutes or so. The truth is there are endless possibilities. 

Someone who is focused on stopping bad behavior is going to prefer a program that describes what to do and say with day to day challenges rather than long-term values. Parenting from the inside out is about promoting healing rather than managing behaviors. Kohn reminds me of Daniel Siegel when he says that if a child does something wrong one option is to impose a disciplinary consequence and yet another option is to see the situation as an opportunity and later as a teachable moment. Parenting it turns out is a lot more about teaching and problem solving than most of us probably imagined. The response to bad behavior is not “you did something wrong and here is what I am going to do to you” but is “something is wrong, what can we do about it?” 

I like to think about giving feedback about what the child is doing, and to think in terms of how a problem is to be solved or how improvements can be made. It is also helpful to be as specific as possible and talk about what the child has done rather than in general. “You are a good writer” is different than “At the end of your story, I liked how you helped the main character to learn a lesson.” What we are looking for with our children is not praise or reward but for opportunities to show support and encouragement…this builds relationships and connections, especially our children from hard places.

I want to encourage you to spend 15 minutes this week to pause and think about- to actually list on paper-the long term goals you have for your children. What do you want them to be able to do? What are your hopes for them? What do you want them to feel about your home and your family? What about in the years to come?
The next part is the tough part…it takes longer than 15 minutes. It is to thoroughly go back over what we do with children, our day to day practices, in light of those long term goals. The really uncomfortable part of all of this that rewards and punishment are worthless at best and destructive at worst for helping children to develop true values and skills. What they do is produce short-term compliance in some children. 

And here is the rub. We do want to do whatever produces compliance. It is more convenient for us for sure. I get it…We just want the garbage taken out when we tell them, we want bed time to be hassle free, we the tantrum to stop and the child to stop lying or stealing. Time constraints are real, our own emotional needs are also real and all of this must count for something. I know in our society and especially in our schools and churches…Good kids are the ones who obey. And good parents have good children. So making them obey is also part of what is required of us-- so it seems. But is that really what God has called us to? Why do we have this child in our home? What does it mean to be a healthy functioning adult? Maybe we should go a little deeper than appearance for our kids.