It is difficult to know where to begin as I tell my story. There are so many intricate details each helping to shape the woman I have become today. Some tragic, many beautiful but all essential pieces in the puzzle that illustrates my identity. The children for which we care have an equally unparalleled, 3-dimensional, symphony which resonates a melody all their own. It is impossible to place into words all that one would need to know to adequately meet all the needs of a child in care. For each child is different, and their needs equally unique. As I parented, I learned that to be a good foster parent you must essentially turn your world upside down. Often, to make progress you must make a conscious decision to do the exact opposite that one might with a biological child. How so? Find the root cause and you will find the source of the behavior. With a child who has been properly nurtured since infancy, behaviors indicate a need to test limits and assert one's own unique personality. With a child from trauma, their source is often entirely different. When I was a new parent, it became undeniably clear that I was extremely inadequate and unprepared for the task ahead of me. So, I read books and watched parenting videos. Typically these were well-respected materials designed to be used in a the average home environment. I applied the techniques and had somewhat mixed results. When the kids were in my home, they followed rules, completed chores, used a respectful tone of voice, did their homework and stayed out of trouble in school. But I noticed a trend. When they turned 17 they had a deep desire to leave home. And when they did leave, it was often accompanied by drug use, premarital sex and a whole host of other things I would never have wanted for them. Although, they had lofty goals, they struggled incessantly with completing them. They would get a job, then lose a job all within a weeks time. I wondered what I did wrong. Granted, I understand both we as a family and they in their lives prior to living with me suffered from tragic circumstances. But still, why do some prevail and others remain a victim, as though they feel destined to not rise above current or past defeats? Why do some drag their guilt, shame, heartache, anger, hurt, malice, depression, resentment, low-self esteem...with them as though it is a cross they must bear and others are able to nail it to the cross and move forward? Why is that? I don't know if I have the right answer but I think I might have a glimpse into what one might consider insight.
Over and again as I read books written by Cloud and Townsend, they stressed the integral need we have as humans to connect with God and each other. They insisted that it was only within the womb of a loving and safe relationship, safe meaning a person who both loves you unconditionally and holds you accountable in a non-critical way, can a person grow. They insisted this was unparalleled in helping to overcome depression, guilt, shame and a host of other battles. A natural introvert and typically unemotional person, I trudged through their suggestions, hoping to overcome some of my own struggles and begin to lay down my self-inflected, masochistic tendencies. I sought out what I felt were “safe” people in whom I could confide. And, I risked their rejection as I confessed my failures as a person and a parent. To my surprise, not only did they not reject me but they embraced me and in-turn confided that they had similar shortcomings – struggles with anger, inadequacies as a person and a parent. In a brief period of time, I came to understand that one of the greatest tools Satan uses to keep us in defeat is silence. When we face our fear of the rejection of man and force ourselves to confess our failures – true failures, not some sugar-coated version of, “Oh, I struggle with being late or I tend to gossip too much,” but those gut-wrenching failures that break our heart on a daily basis, we begin to heal. Satan can no longer impress upon us that our failures are greater than anyone elses. He can no longer convince us that we are without hope, unable to take action. It is in those safe relationships that we begin to have the courage to grow. We are given a mirror to hold in front of ourselves and if we don't like what we see, we can change it. We have the strength to change it. We are no longer alone.
By “safe” relationship, I do not mean someone who doesn't hold you accountable. It is really quite the opposite. It is someone you respect, perhaps even admire, but someone who loves you unconditionally and gives you an element of grace coupled with the much needed truth. They take your hand and walk with you. They give you time to grow and a support system to which you can cling when you are still too weak to stand on your own. Simultaneously, I purposefully avoided intimate conversations with individuals who were inclined to be critical. In other words, I shielded myself from undue blows. I am subconsciously drawn to those individuals who have a critical nature. Like a moth to a flame, I seek out their approval only to be disappointed when I inevitably fall short. Quite a few psychologists have written about this tendency from Dr. Sigmund Freud on. It seems that the older, less developed part of our brain stores our most primitive childhood memories. This older brain, evolutionarily speaking, acts out of impulse, subconsciously. It is the only brain that lizards and very basic creatures posses. However, we don't have to operate in this “old brain” mentality. We have the “new brain” or part of our brain that is responsible for rational thinking and logical decision making. It prompts us to choose our relationships carefully and based upon meeting legitimate needs (such as support, love and affirmation) instead of succumbing to the subconscious demands of the old brain which typically seeks out relationships with people who have the positive and negative traits of our parents with a particular affinity for those individuals possessing the negative traits of our parents. It is thought that the draw of the old brain to these individuals is so we might re-create a self-imposed version of negative childhood experiences allotting us the opportunity, in essence, to “get it right” this time. In other words, our less developed, subconscious feels an unmet need from childhood – such as approval. Instead of seeking approval from well-grounded, compassionate individuals we seek it from those least likely to give their approval – individuals with highly critical natures.
This insight allows us to peer not only into our own psyche and motivation for doing things but that of our children as well. It explains why women who have come from abusive backgrounds are drawn to husbands who perpetuate the cycle. It explains why, often times, after a few years of marriage we look up only to declare, “I married my father / mother.” There is a whole host of analogies and applications that we could construct. However, for the purpose of this book we will keep things fairly simple. If we as adults, have an innate need to recreate what we believe were the “failures” we experienced as children or to seek out individuals who share the negative traits of our parents so that we might attempt to fulfill the unmet emotional needs of our infancy and early childhood, then our children likely have a propensity to do the same. In order to help them achieve growth and move past the surface level changes I noticed during my first few years as parent, we must teach our children to form genuine attachments with “safe” (compassionate, caring, respectful, accepting) individuals. In order to do this, first, it is necessary to teach our children to bond or form attachments in-and-of themselves. Then, we must teach them to consciously seek out safe people with which to form these attachments. If they rely solely on the “old brain,” subconsciously they will be drawn to befriend or form relationships with individuals who possess the negative qualities of their birth parents thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse they experienced as a child.
So what does this have to do with how we discipline a child? Everything. If I have only one goal, it is to help my children learn to form attachments. For it is in these attachments that they learn to connect with God and with others. It is what we were created to do. If my method or means of discipline undermines that, I must find a new method. This was once explained to me by the following illustration. Imagine that you have a prefect lawn (a feat of the imagination around our house) except one weed that keeps springing up. You get a lawn mower and cut down the weed but no matter how many times you cut it down, it continues to resurface. A larger lawn mower will in no way help rid your yard of this weed. You must find the roots – sometimes they might be directly below the surface but often-times they are deep within the lawn and difficult to uproot. When raising children who haven't experienced trauma, the lawn mover approach might be quite affective. And sometimes, a larger lawn mower might be necessary. But for children whose lives originated seeped in trauma and void of attachments, it is not only ineffective but often harmful. Just like that lawn mower created only surface level changes. Discipline that fails to uncover and uproot the cause of the behavior will create only surface level changes as well. When the child is no longer within the structured confines of your home, the “progress” will deteriorate and regression will occur.
Unfortunately, finding the root to a problem is a difficult and tedious process. However difficult, it is the only path by which lasting growth can occur. This is accomplished through intentionally creating opportunities from which a relationship may grow such as utilizing the five love languages approach (outlined briefly in Part Two of the book), family activities, game nights, vacations, and being an active listener. Observation of your adolescent's behavior patterns while prayerfully seeking God's direction will also prove indispensable. Another route by which some adolescents achieve healing is through the process of Theorphostic Prayer Ministry. This approach was formulated by a licensed professional counselor who was also a Baptist minister. He was disheartened by the lack of lasting progress he saw in many of his clients and developed a more prayer-based, introspective approach to counseling. Many churches offer this free of charge. The “public membership” link under the membership tab at www.theorphostic.com lists providers in each state. I first learned of this ministry from Mike Walton, who is currently the director of Benchmark Family Services in Lubbock, Texas and was previously a houseparent for the highly therapeutic cottage at the Texas Boys Ranch. Upon his testimony regarding the numerous lives permanently changed for the better by this ministry, I encouraged some of my children to take part. I can personally attest to the positive impact this can make in a child's life, particularly those that have not been able to find healing in the more traditional counseling methods.
So in the meantime, do you simply give up on consequences altogether? Absolutely not, be firm but kind and administer consistent and fair consequences tailoring the discipline as close to the offense as possible whenever feasible. But, do not make the mistake I did and believe that you are actually changing any core behaviors. No, true change comes from discovering the roots. I think of it much like a case of strep throat. Of course you administer cough drops as needed, but you never assume that cough drops do anything to rid the child of the infection. It takes antibiotics and time for a case of strep throat to be healed. It takes a proper diagnosis of the problem followed by intentional treatment for emotional healing to occur as well. This happens most readily when a parent has been proactive in their attempt to help the child begin to form attachments and does not let an emotional reaction to the symptom (negative behavior displayed by the child) serve to further barricade the child within themselves. This is, of course, easier said than done.
In addition to creating opportunities for relationship to development, it helps if we understand the cycle from which attachments form. It is not a great abstract concept far outside the grasp of common man. In fact, it is rather simple, almost intuitive. When an infant is born, they rely solely on their caregivers to meet every need. This is a beautiful catalyst to the forming of attachments. You see when the infant is hungry, expresses that need and then finds their need met by a nurturing parent, attachment begins to develop. Over time, as their needs are consecutively met in a caring and consistent manor they learn to trust, rely on, and attach to that caregiver.
However, when their needs are frequently and intentionally ignored or met in an abusive manor, the opposite occurs and the child begins to develop, to some degree, an attachment disorder – no longer sensing a need to connect with those around them. In this, empathy is stagnated and a self-focused, sometimes to the point of narcissistic, self emerges.
In this cycle, we find encouragement. What can be defined, can also be replicated. Recent developments in in neuroscience suggest a great aptitude for neuroplasticity. Our brain, once thought to be a static organ after early childhood, has been found to actually have an amazing ability to change throughout the life of an individual. This can occur at both a physical level that encompasses the structure or anatomy of of the brain and at a physiological, or functional level. It is impossible to encapsulate all of the previously unforeseen opportunities for growth. If we can replicate this cycle, we may be able to re-activate a child's ability to form attachments. Another bit of encouragement is that the cycle does not have to be triggered by a need in the literal sense of the word, a perceived need may be equally advantageous to perpetuating the cycle of attachment. As the caregiver, we must meet as many needs or perceived needs as possible to simulate the pattern that should have been established during infancy. This is strategically different that an approach one might use with a child who grew up in a traditional home environment and is developmentally capable of forming appropriate attachments. In other words, if a child who has not experienced neglect in early childhood has a perceived need, we may or may not meet that need so as not to solicit an attitude of entitlement. If a child who was neglected early in life expresses a need to a caregiver, even if it is only a perceived need, it is typically in the best interest of the child to meet that need to the best of our ability. This does, of course, take some degree of discernment, but if no harm will come from it, often it is better to invest a bit of time, money or energy so as to begin to drudge a path by which attachment will occur. Although simple, this can be a painstakingly slow process. Each need perceived by the child should be seen by the caregiver as a potential for further excavating the path to attachment.
One universal need we all experience is that for validation. This can often occur in the context of actively listening to a child. Although, it does take both practice and additional effort on the part of the parent, practicing active listening is a deliberate step toward emotionally connecting with your child. This process consists of stopping what you're doing, making eye contact, rephrasing what your child has relayed to you, asking if there is anything you misunderstood or that they would like to add, empathizing with their feelings and asking questions. It is not assuming that you know how they feel or giving unsolicited advice. This is difficult. And I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone else, but it helpful. It should also be out of a genuine concern not appear rehearsed or forced. It is odd, but as I was writing this paragraph, my teenage daughter, who knew I was working on the book but was unaware of the content of the chapter stated, “You know what would help foster parents, if they would stop and listen to kids, get to know them as a friend, before they try to provide structure. Then, they would actually know what was going on. Because, then they (the child) could start to attach. You can't attach to someone you don't trust.” Honest to goodness. That's what she said. And perhaps she said it much better than I can.
In summary, what does all of this mean? Healing comes through intentional activities designed to promote growth and implemented within the safety net of a compassionate relationship. To accomplish this, we must first spark the innate proclivity toward attachment found within each person by reactivating a developmentally appropriate attachment cycle – acknowledging and meeting both perceived and legitimate needs. Once adequate time and opportunities for relationship have been established, attachment will begin to develop. With this advancement, the child will be within the proper catalyst for growth to occur during, but certainly not limited to, such activities as counseling, support groups, theosophic prayer ministry and intentional active listening on the part of the caregiver. Although the journey to attachment is often wearisome, it must be the ultimate goal of any foster/adoptive parent. After all, it is the ability to connect to God and each other that brings with it the ultimate victory – redemption.