Sending Parental Messages of Unconditional Love

February 14, 2012 by

I  thought this day was a perfect chance to remind ourselves  about the importance of sending messages of unconditional love to our children.   In my house we like to say, “Good days, bad days, happy days, sad days, I will always love you.”

Obviously each of us benefits from the security generated when we really know that despite our imperfections we are truly  loved.  For children who began life in less than optimal care and who waited for a  family the message of unconditional love is even more crucial.

Unfortunately, sometimes kids behaviors, especially the  behaviors that can stem from trauma, loss, attachment strain, etc.  are challenging to manage.  It is not uncommon for adoptive parents (and all parents for that matter) to struggle to address negative behaviors while still sending messages of unconditional love.   Take the following example for instance.

Mom says,  “Bad boy!  We don’t throw toys!  Go to your room this instant!”

Message received by child:   I am  bad.  Mom  wants me to get away from her.  I am not lovable.

In order to send messages of unconditional love we have to be very conscious of the language we choose.  Let’s tweak the above example just a bit.

Mom says, “Bad choice!  Throwing toys is dangerous!    I’m going to put this up until you’ve calmed down.  Now come and sit by Mom.”

Message received by child:  Throwing toys is dangerous.  Mom won’t let me throw toys without interceding.  Mom helps  me when I’m upset.    Mom loves me even when I screw up.

Sounds simple but we all know how challenging it can be in the heat of parenting moments to choose the correct words and deliver them with a loving spirit.  I personally motivate myself by reminding myself regularly that I’m not doing this just to be nice or just to be positive.  I’m doing it because the science tells me that this is the kind of parenting that promotes attachment and nurtures emotional health.  One way I remind myself is by continuing to learn and read on the subject.  One author that particularly speaks to me on this subject is Gordon Neufeld.  He  writes,

 “Unconditional parental love is the indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth.   The first task is to create space in that child’s heart of the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love.  She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love- in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost.  It is not conditional.  It is just there regardless of which side the child is acting from – ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny , uncooperative, and plain rude and the parent still lets her feel loved.  Ways have to be found to convey the unacceptability of certain behaviors without making the child herself feel unaccepted.  She has to be able to bring her unrest, her least likable characteristics to the parent and still receive the parent’s absolutely satisfying, security –inducing unconditional love.”

Here’s hoping that this Valentine’s Day finds you enjoying the warmth of unconditional love yourself and inspired to keep sending that message to your kiddos.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Heart of the Matter Home

Join Us On Facebook

Resolving to Get What You Want

January 4, 2012 by

Did you make a New Year’s resolution having to do with parenting?   Or, are you like me… a resolution-avoider?  Regardless,  I heard a great quote today.  Although it was used in the terms of healthy eating, it applies to much more, including parenting.  Here it is:

Don’t trade what you want most for what you want at this moment.

There is a lot to think about in that short little statement, but what first came to my mind was discipline.  Many of our courses talk about choosing discipline techniques that make sense in terms of brain development and building skills such as self-control, empathy, cause and effect thinking, ability to let go of control and impulse control.  While we get a lot of agreement that yes, pull close parenting types of discipline do manage the child’s behavior while building those skills, we find that for many of us (ourselves included at times!) what we want right now, in that moment, sometimes gets in the way.

Take the example of a younger child who is throwing a temper tantrum.  The science of brain development tells us that the ability to regulate one’s emotions is learned through someone else helping keep your emotions regulated.  We also know that we have to be present to help the child calm and regulate that mad feeling.  And yet, there is still a temptation to do something that makes them stop crying or throwing a fit right now!!!   …even if “making it all stop” works against what you really want… a child who will ultimately be able to handle their own angry feelings appropriately.

So, take a moment and ask yourself:

What are my goals for my child?
How do I get there?  Do I know how to get there?
What do I need to get there?

Heart of the Matter Seminars

Take the Elf OFF the Shelf!

November 28, 2011 by

Santa as a spy who has an obsession with behavior modification--ick!

I have a bone to pick with Santa.  As much as I love the big guy I am really tired of the part of him that is a parent-power-sucking-sponge.  The whole naughty or nice thing has several issues (um, are poor kids or kids in orphanages naughty?)  But the idea of Santa as a spy who is really into behavior modification has a lot of parents compounding the problem.

Santa must be sick of tattle tales!
For some folks who struggle with discipline, Santa is like a big fat permission slip to be wimpy parents.  When we attempt to secure desired behavior through the threat or promise of Santa instead of handling the problem ourselves, in essence we’re saying, “I can’t handle this, maybe you’ll behave for Santa.”  Or, sometimes it has the flavor of mom or dad tattletale-ing to Santa as in, “Do you want me to call Santa and tell him what you’re doing?”

The Elf on the Shelf sucks up money out of your wallet AND parental competency.

Shelve the elves!
Bad as all that is, merchandisers have come up with another way to suck up both our money and our parental competency!   The Elf on the Shelf.   The idea is that you buy a cute little elf to sit somewhere in you house.  During the day, he watches the children.  At night, he goes to the North Pole to report the children’s behavior to Santa and appears in a different spot the next morning, ready to spy on the children again.  In the meantime, parents are able to threaten their children with the elf and the possibility of no presents or an unhappy Santa.  Cute, huh?

Santa or the Elf on the Shelf may help bring a little “peace on earth” in the short term, but if parents rely on them during the holidays what happens on December 26th?  Not only is that parenting crutch tool gone, but they’ve been busy sending their child messages of incompetency for weeks and may have accidentally dug themselves into a hole that is not easy to get of.

Do you suffer from Santa or elf dependence?
How do you know if there’s a problem?  Well, some pretty good indicators are having to repeat directions several times, changing your directions to try to gain compliance, scolding, threatening, giving in or punishments or rewards that just don’t seem to make a lasting impact overall.  All this leaves an incredibly exhausted, frustrated and stressed out parent–not to mention a child who is ultimately not happy either.

Take back your parent power!
Fortunately, even if you’ve fallen into a trap where you’ve given your parenting power away to someone else, with some knowledge and a lot of determination you CAN get back to where you need to be.  It starts with taking back your parent power and learning how to manage power struggles.  One resource is our recorded course Discipline: Managing Your Child’s Bid for Power   But, at the very least, forget about using Santa as a means to control a child’s behavior and if you must put the elf on the shelf, just let him sit there and look cute–don’t make him spy for Santa!

Remember….

November 10, 2011 by

Happy National Adoption Month!

My first thought is always about our family’s adoption experience.  My son came home from Russia on a VERY cold winter’s night in 1996.  He was a teeny, tiny, bald baby with huge blue eyes that seemed to see everything.  He was 11 months old and had never been outside an orphanage.  Our extended family was there at the airport with signs, balloons and lots of tears of joy.  My Grandma Nina loves to tell about the first time she held him.  She always talks about how he “snuggled right up” to her neck, remembering it as a sweet, trusting gesture by this tiny baby.  I don’t tell her that our family had actually freaked him out and that he was trying to get away as best as he could!!!!

15, almost 16 years later, he is an amazing young man.  I don’t talk about him much on this blog or in other aspects of my work because he is a very private person.  He is an old soul in a young body.  He has an incredible depth of thinking, sensitivity and interests that go beyond his age and is one of the few people who almost ALWAYS allow themselves to truly be their genuine selves.  He is often a contradiction–for example, he professes to dislike little kids, but is the kindest, gentlest big brother and older cousin you can imagine.  He is brilliant and can literally do anything he wants to do.  He is thinking of being a geological engineer but says his “back up plan” is to be a truck driver.  (he is only half kidding)  He very, very rarely has the typical teenager angst or anger.  He CAN, however make a person crazy with his stubbornness!   I just bought him a shirt that says “I May Be Wrong… But I Doubt It”.   

Long story short, he is amazing and I have no doubt that he will someday fulfill whatever purpose he is meant to.  He may change the world in big ways or small ways, but I am absolutely sure that it will be for the better.  None of this could or would be possible without international adoption.

We are some of the lucky ones.  There are thousands and thousands of children all over the world whose potential may never be reached because they will not have a family.  The statistics for children who age out of foster care or orphanage care are grim.  Their lives up to that point are sometimes even worse.

I want us all to remember all these little ones.  Whether adoptive parents, birth parents or adults who care about children, we owe it to the children who are still waiting for someone to be their own.   In particular, I’d like to ask you to remember and say a prayer for a group of children known as the “Bac Lieu 16”  They are not the only children needing our thoughts, prayers and especially ACTIONS., but looking at a tiny cross-section of the bigger problem can help us begin to comprehend the depth, scope and reality of so many children’s existence.

International adoption is not the only answer, but it should remain ONE answer.

From Our In-Box: Attachment and Biological Children

October 24, 2011 by

Hi Katie and Julie!

My husband and I just finished Because They Waited, plus the African Countries seminar, for training as we prepare to adopt from Ethiopia.  I wanted to say THANK YOU so much for all the excellent information. I have read a lot of parenting books and a lot of online parenting info, but your seminars were some of the most helpful, applicable content we’ve ever encountered.

We have two biological sons, ages 5 and 2, and as we went through Because They Waited, we really felt like a lot of it pertained to our older son.  He has always been a challenge, and we’ve experienced him as “strong-willed” ever since he was tiny. But since hearing from you about attachment, we are wondering whether he is actually showing signs of attachment strain (which is awful to think about, as he has been in our hopefully-“optimal” care all his life!).

A basic profile: He is smart as a whip — started reading and doing basic math before age 4. He is a collector with varied and sometimes comical passions … he has collected coins, rocks, newspapers, stamps, and plastic lids among other things. He loves to joke, loves playing and watching sports, and loves doing anything with his daddy. He is wonderful, sweet and very loving when things are going well.

However, here are some of his characteristics that cause us concern:

— He was never a “cuddly” baby or child — still very much resists being “confined”
— HIGH need for control of his environment. Always invents a third choice when given two. Can be frustratingly defiant.
— Aggressive and often competitive with his younger brother. Lacks empathy, patience or impulse control when it comes to having his way at home.
— Has not valued or sought friendships with peers outside of our family. He’s not withdrawn, but just doesn’t seem to really know how to engage with kids his own age. Prefers the company/stability of grownups.
— Self-regulates pretty well at preschool, but lets it all hang out at home. He is prone to anger and tantrums with hitting, kicking and screaming when he doesn’t get his way or perceives an injustice.

We have gone around and around searching for the magical method of discipline that will work for him. We’ve used time-out, consequences, behavior modification, and spanking. But after Because They Waited, we’re wondering whether we’ve been going about parenting this child ALL WRONG! We’ve thought of his challenges as springing from rebellion, but thinking of his behavior as springing from a lack of TRUST pretty much breaks my heart.

So, my questions are: Can biological children raised in (not-perfect, but) good and loving homes suffer from attachment strain?  Can you speak to whether there’s a difference between a child with attachment strain and a “strong-willed” but securely attached child?  And do you have any action steps you’d suggest for our specific situation? (we’ve started to apply time-in and general pull-close parenting, and it seems to be making a difference already.)

Thank you so much — we’ve really appreciated your excellent teaching!

–A Thinking Mom

Katie’s Response:

Thank you for sharing your experiences with Because They Waited.  I am so impressed with your willingness to be open to other ways of parenting and with the obvious thought and effort you are putting in to doing your best job as a mom.  These are the kind of stories that keep Julie and I going and the reason why Heart of the Matter Seminars exists!

Before I answer your questions, let me first say that I can only address your questions in a general manner since I don’t know you or your family.  I do think you’ve asked some excellent questions, though, and would be glad to try to answer them as best as I can:

First of all, yes, attachment strain can be present in biological children who have always lived with their parents. It does NOT mean that they are unattached, but circumstances may mean that they are struggling with trust.  For example, parents who are “wimpy” do not provide what the child needs to believe that they are trustworthy.  Or, a child who has had many, many ear infections early in life may have had so many Cycles of Unmet Need (episodes of pain and discomfort) that they struggle with trust.  Children who have not had emotionally sensitive enough and attuned enough parenting may also struggle with trust.

I believe some children are more sensitive than others.  In fact, one thing that stuck out to me was that your son sounds very bright and possibly even gifted.  These children are more aware and attuned to what is going on around them.  They often have a more keen sense of injustice and ability to reason that can really intensify the impact of parenting that is not attuning to their emotional needs. They often struggle with peer relationships and prefer adult company because their brains just work on a different plane than the typical child their age.

In terms of your question about whether there is a difference between attachment strain and a securely attached “strong willed” child….Yes and no… It depends on how you define strong willed.  I think that oftentimes in our society “strong willed” has become a nice way of saying “controlling” and in that sense, I would say that it’s the same thing…. a lack of trust.  On the other hand, I define my daughter (and myself, if truth be known!) as “strong willed” in the sense of strong opinions, focus and determination but able to allow others to call the shots sometimes–particularly a person in authority.

You asked about specifics on what to do… It sounds like you are already on the right track!  Lots of pull close parenting and Time In, but beyond that, I would suggest really honing your skills at managing his need to control.  This is tricky at times–especially with a smart kid!!!  I am not trying to sell you something for the sake of selling you something, but I really do think that our course “Discipline: Managing Your Child’s Bid for Power” would be very, very useful based on what you are describing.  Power struggles and bids for power all really stem from a lack of trust or an attempt to control and like I said, there are a lot of nuances there that it’s important to think through and understand how to address–both proactively and reactively.

Hope this helps answer some of your questions. Let me know how it goes!

From Our Inbox: Are We Creating Bad Behavior By Meeting Too Many Needs?

September 21, 2011 by

Ever worry that meeting your child’s needs might be spoiling her?  Check out the below question we received by email and read our response to learn more about needs, wants, trust and control.

From Our Inbox:

Dear Ladies,

I was discussing the behavior of my adopted 4 year old with a friend, and she was describing what was going on in her house.  It seems we have the same child, she the female version! We realized that each of these children (in addition to coming from the same overseas orphanage) experienced trauma in the first months of life.  Now, both children are loving and continuing to show signs of attachment, but are the most strong willed, stubborn, and at times inflexibe children you’ve ever seen. My husband and I say, we all (including his biological adopted sister) go with the flow and our son directs the flow. I have taken your course on power struggle or adoptive behavior, and I either need to take it again, or need some techniques to use and share with my friend.  We were thinking maybe their behavior is a result of answering that cycle of need one to many times.   Have we created this behavior? Anyway, whatever you can suggest, we are listening and eager to hear. You are always my go-to gals on all things adoption, so thanks for all the work you do.

Signed,

Eager to Hear

Our Response:

Dear Eager to Hear,

First, let me assure you that you cannot spoil or overindulge a child by meeting their needs.  Having needs met over and over again in a timely, consistent, nurturing fashion creates positive brain based skills.  You can, however, spoil or overindulge a child by granting them every one of their desires, wishes, or wants.  There is a big difference between consistently meeting needs and always granting wants.

The Difference Between Meeting Needs and Granting Wants:
You could never become spoiled just because your partner or significant other interacted with you everyday, smiled at you, helped you fix a problem with a broken appliance, attended your child’s school meeting with you, kissed you and hugged you daily, and remembered that you are allergic to peanuts whenever he or she cooked.  That’s because these are just examples of meeting your needs as a spouse or partner.

You could however become “spoiled” if your spouse did all the cooking, cleaning and car and appliance repair with no need for input or help from you, rubbed your feet every single night, routinely brought home lavish gifts , made you breakfast in bed daily,  let you choose the menu always,  never raised his or her voice or demanded their own way, and basically gave in to anything and everything you ever WANTED.

It’s the same with children.  Since I’m not able to see into your home you will have to discern for yourself if you are simply meeting needs (food, comfort, support, boundaries, guidance, etc.) or if you are acquiescing to every want.  And remember, choosing to indulge in some of your child’s wants is perfectly fine as long as it is on your own terms and you understand the difference between needs and wants.

Trust and Control:But beyond the needs and wants conversation there lies an even more important topic to consider in your question.  That is the topic of controlling behavior and why so many children who waited in orphanages before their adoption exhibit such a strong need to control their environment even after they are safe at home with needs meeting parents.  When you say that you have the ability to “go with the flow” but your son “directs the flow” and when you use adjectives like “stubborn, strong willed and inflexible” you describe what I imagine to be a child struggling to remain in control. And given the history it makes a lot of sense.

Remember that even as you meet your child’s many needs over and over again now, you are still battling against the fact that prior to coming to you those needs were likely not met in a timely and nurturing fashion and so it makes sense that skills learned from having one’s needs met,  skills like cause and effect thinking, impulse control, self regulation , empathy and the most important of all ….trust, might be lacking.

You mention that your child shows positive signs of attachment, and that’s great, but remember that attachment is more than just love.  It also encompasses all of those brain based skills….especially trust.  A child who is still developing healthy levels of trust is much more likely to act in controlling ways.  Because of this it isn’t surprising to me at all that both your child and your friend’s child are exhibiting similar controlling behaviors.  I’m just more inclined to point to a lack of needs meeting early in life as the culprit.

So what’s a parent to do?  More of the same.  Keep up that needs meeting parenting and enjoy spending time with your friend who is parenting in the same way.  Help each other by chatting about needs and wants and discerning if you are striking a balance on delivering some wants and meeting most needs.     You mentioned taking some of our shorter courses but if you haven’t taken Because They Waited we strongly suggest it.   It really helps to answer some of the why’s as well as the “what to do’s” in a more comprehensive way than some of our shorter courses.

Hope that helps! Keep us posted on your progress and thoughts.

Julie

Heart of the Matter Seminars Home

Join Us on Facebook

Advice for “the church ladies” who want to help adoptive families….

September 19, 2011 by

So much of this is great advice, I had to share: Helping a Family Who Recently Adopted

How, When and Why to Phase Out International Adoptions?

September 13, 2011 by

South Korean Adoptions: The Canary in the International Adoption Mine? is an article written by Dawn Davenport that explores some of the thought processes, pressures and goals behind South Korea’s policies limiting international adoptions.  It does an excellent job of examining some of the rationales and policies based on research rather than opinion or rhetoric.

Most important, it brings to light the unintended consequences of imposing limits on international adoptions before the rate of domestic adoptions has caught up.

Adoption and School: Why the classroom discipline plan often fails for our kids.

August 27, 2011 by

If you have seen the inside of an elementary classroom in the past 20 years you have probably seen this classroom management chart or some version of it.   You might be curious as to why this simple chart is the topic of today’s post.   What could it possibly have to do with adoptive families?  The truth is this chart (and other behavior modification tools) can have a large and sometimes negative  impact on our kids school experience.  So with school starting back up we wanted to take time to  talk about how these charts are used, why they can be a problem particularly for our kids, and what to do about it.

How the chart system works:
The  way this classroom management system works  is very simple.  Each child has a set of cards in the pocket chart.  Usually the cards are green, yellow and red symbolizing the go, warning, and stop signals of a traffic light.  Some teachers add an additional  black card.  Every day each child starts with their green card on top.  As the class moves through the day the teacher asks students who show undesirable behaviors or make poor choices to change their card color.

So seven year old Johnny starts the day with a green card on top,  but when he shouts out an answer without raising his hand the teacher asks him to change his top card to yellow.  Later when he turns in his math paper partially incomplete the teacher asks him to turn his card to red.   And finally when he pokes Sally in the arm with a freshly sharpened pencil she sends him to change the card to black.  Of course, landing on red or black usually means a note is sent home or a phone call is made to inform parents and to plan for better behavior.

Each school and individual teacher puts their own spin on the system.  For example, sometimes cards are only changed after several warnings.  Sometimes teachers have children fill out “think sheets” about their behavior when they change a card. Some teachers make individual plans with the parents of struggling students to give daily reports, and on and on.

So what is the problem with these charts and other behavior modification systems?
Sounds like a pretty simple system and I know a lot of teachers use it very successfully with typical kids.  So why would it be any different for a child who joined their family through adoption?  The key to the struggle is not actually about adoption, but instead about less than optimal care in the beginning of a child’s life, and how that care impacts the child’s ability to successfully navigate a behavior modification system like the color chart.

Many of our children waited in an orphanage, an abusive or neglectful birth home or were bounced from foster home to foster home prior to their adoption.  Research tells us that not having needs met in a timely, effective, and nurturing fashion over and over again early in life has an impact on a child’s brain development.   Often these children lag behind their peers in the development of brain based skills like cause and effect thinking, impulse control, self regulation, empathy and trust.

So lets go back to Johnny.  Let’s say his development of these skills is not that of a typical 7 year old because he spent the first 2 and ½ years of his life in an orphanage.  Does he have the impulse control to not shout out the answer?  Does he have the self regulation necessary to complete the math assignment without assistance?  Has empathy developed enough to think about how Sally will feel when she is poked?  Probably not.

But even more concerning is that our children who have experienced repeated cycles of unmet need are often lacking in trust, and children who lack trust usually have a strong need to control their environment.  When this is the case behavior modification systems like the color chart are almost certain to fail because the child is more motivated to control the environment than to get any reward that is offered.  In some cases children even seem to purposefully choose behaviors opposite of expectations;  their lack of trust and need to control leading them  to test the competency of their teacher.   It is as if they are saying, “Am I safe in this place?”  “Can you handle me?”  The behaviors are not usually  malicious but instead a sort of desperate  grasp at control.  Not surprisingly this type of  behavior is often misunderstood by teachers and school administrators, and sometimes results in a series of punishments that increase in intensity over time but never really seem to fix the behaviors.

What’s a parent to do?
So what as parents can we or should we do if this type of system is in place in our child’s classroom?   If behavior modification is being used in your child’s classroom and your child is successfully navigating it, obviously nothing needs to be done.  But if your child is struggling to behave in the classroom, is showing poor self regulation or impulse control, has to change their color over and over again for similar behaviors, or is showing signs of controlling the classroom through his or her misbehavior then it’s time  to advocate for your child and  her real  needs.  This means sitting down with the teacher and talking about why your child is struggling, and coming up with a plan to manage your child’s behaviors that will prove more successful.   To get ready for that talk check out this article with tips for talking to your child’s teacher.

And if you have completed the Because They Waited education system you will remember making a parenting plan that included discipline techniques that made sense given the science and research surrounding the adopted child.  We encourage techniques like pull close parenting, time in not time out, and more.  These techniques can be helpful to teachers too.   I’m reminded here of of one of Katie’s posts about time in at school.  Share examples like these with your child’s teacher.

The bottom line is that in order for our kids to be successful at school we need to continue to turn that cycle of need to completion at home thus building and shoring up those brain based skills.  We also need to help teachers understand why color charts (and other behavior mod techniques)   that work perfectly  for so many children, can be problematic  for the child who comes from a background of less than optimal care.  And finally, we need to partner with our child’s teacher to come up with effective ways to manage the sometimes difficult behaviors that kids struggling in these areas bring to the classroom.

Heart of the Matter Seminars HOME

Join Us on FACEBOOK

What Have You Done Since June 24th?

August 5, 2011 by

What has happened in your life since June 24th?  Take just a minute to look at the last two months of your calendar, scan through the last 2 months of your email or just think about what you and your family have done this summer.

Here at my house we’ve:

  • eaten well over 65 meals together
  • celebrated the 4th of July
  • enrolled our youngest daughter in kindergarten and our son for his sophomore year in high school

Since June 24, I have:

  • fixed our daughter’s hair about 41 times
  • hugged our son good night about 27 times (he went on a trip with his grandpa)
  • read at LEAST 82 books to our daughter, not including a couple of chapter books
  • almost finished writing and visually creating my section of our new online class for special needs adoptions

Why do I ask you to think about what you’ve done since June 24th?  Because that is the last time I posted about the “Bac Lieu 16” and every single one of these children are still waiting.

Take just a few minutes to watch this video… we all need to remember and be accountable.  If you haven’t signed the petition yet, please do so!  If you haven’t emailed AskCI@state.gov about these little ones, please do so now!

Empty Stroller March from Both Ends Burning on Vimeo.


%d bloggers like this: