But Aren’t You Just Coddling Your Kids?

It’s a pretty common belief born from traditional, authoritarian parenting that we should be “hard” on our kids now so that they’ll turn out to be productive citizens and stay our of trouble later. It’s part of the pay now or pay later philosophy, which isn’t a bad philosophy. In fact, I still believe that motto. Just in a different way, which you’ll see in a moment.

“Hey, I was raised that way and look how *I* turned out. ” That was my attitude a number of years ago if someone would have suggested to me to try some of the TBRI techniques on my children instead of going straight to ‘punishment’. If they did the crime, they do the time, right?

But the more I learned about these beautiful brains of ours, how they are designed to function and how things can go off track when a child experiences early abuse, neglect, and trauma, the less I wanted to contribute more to their shame core, and the less I wanted to be added to their long list of adults they feared. By inadvertently triggering the stress response in our children by our punishment methods, we disconnect from them and become their adversary, not their ally.

Children who are in a fight, flight, or freeze mode are stuck, and cannot process that we are trying to do right by them – what they actually experience in their bodies is that the very one who is supposed to help, is actually hurting and scaring them. Of course, we don’t want that for our children.

Most of us raising kids from hard places didn’t learn how early adverse experiences affect their developing brain. I did not understand the effect that early trauma had on my twins. I thought that my tried-and-true parenting techniques were the answer: just do more of what worked with my biological children. But my biological children already felt safe with me, for example. My adopted twins did not. It wasn’t until I began to directly meet their needs for feeling safe and cared for did I see them relax and settle into FAMILY. I either learn to meet their needs now (pay now) or I’m faced with big behaviors when they don’t learn to trust me (pay later).

To meet their emotional needs, I had to stop punishing my sons for misbehavior and instead focus on making soul connections with them. That is what can appear to be coddling, but in reality, it’s the first step in getting them to be able to respond appropriately down the road. Punishment takes a backseat (actually it gets booted in favor of discipline, from the root word disciple) while new neural connection in the brain get formed so that they can learn (perhaps for the first time ever) to trust another human being. Nurture is what they need before they can be expected to behave better.

Children need both structure and nurture, in equal measures, in order to be healthy.

When our children come to us with grave deficits in the nurture category, yes, we do need to focus more on ‘coddling’, and yes, from the outside looking in, it appears unbalanced. But we’re balancing from their history and that might mean going heavy-handed on connection and lighter on structure at times.

Most of us are more used to the structure part of the equation, so when we add more nurturing (and I’m talking about within the framework of our kid’s behaviors), it feels weird. It did for me, that’s for sure.

Something that helps to motivate me to get out of my structure comfort zone is to learn all I can about how childhood abuse changes the brain. Keeping this information fresh in my memory allows me to see beyond the behavior and underneath, to the true need they child is having.

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I’d love to hear from you how you are balancing structure with nurturing in your own child. Let me know if I can help you bring more balance in this area.


The Two Other Senses

For this, you will need to trust me a bit. Unless you are in a weird place right now and can’t do this….please stand up and then close your eyes. Reach your right arm out to the right of your body, like airplane arms. Put out your right index finger and then, with eyes still closed, bring your right finger in toward your nose and touch your finger to your nose. Put your finger and arm down again, eyes still closed, and repeat it all with the left side. Now, open your eyes and sit back down.

Without your proprioceptive system working properly, you wouldn’t have been able to do that successfully; you wouldn’t know where different parts of your body are without looking. This system is responsible for helping you move through space and move your body effectively.  It’s an important sense!

Often children from hard places have deficits in this sense which can make it hard for them to stay regulated.

Research says that 15 minutes of proprioceptive activities can regulate for 1-2 hours! By adding some of these activities into your child’s day, this can increase their ability to regulate. Our body receives information for this sense through our muscles and joints.

Vestibular Input coordinates movements of the eyes, head, and body which affects our body’s balance, muscle tone, visual-spatial perception, auditory-language perception, and emotional security. The vestibular system helps us understand where our head and body are in space.

Vestibular is all about balance and movement. All children require this movement and input for proper development.

Some vestibular activities are:

  • Swinging
  • Linear movements
  • Vertical movements
  • Upside down movements
  • Horizontal movements
  • Challenges to balance
  • Inverted head
  • Starts and stops in motion (game of freeze)
  • Changes in direction
  • Changes in speed

When thinking of activities to strengthen your child’s brain, and therefore decrease their frequency, duration, or intensity of meltdowns, look for the following 6 “R’s” from Dr. Perry’s work.  Relational – these are experiences that happen inside, safe, connected, and attuned relationship. For example, instead of putting a child on a rocking chair, we rock with them. Relevant means developmentally-matched to the individual . Repetitive is patterned – happening over and over again. Rewarding means the activity is pleasurable. Rhythmic has a beat to it. Respectful (of the child, family, and culture.)

If you believe that your child has some sensory differences, please consult an expert in the field, rather than just try hit or miss on adding these activities. For the most part, anything that adds proprioception input is very regulating, but you do need to be more careful with the vestibular activities so as not to accidentally get your child overly stimulated and therefore dysregulated.  This website is a wealth of information: lemonlimeadventures.com

The that Role Sensory Input Plays in Meltdowns

We want to find out, how come it is that on some days your child is pretty regulated, but other days, they have meltdowns? It turns out that we all have a certain amount of sensory input from our environment that we can tolerate before we become dysregulated.  This difference can be based on time of day, whether hungry or thirsty, not enough sleep, stressed out about something, not feeling well.

Experts say that children from early trauma, abuse, or neglect backgrounds experience sensitivities in the way they process sensory information, and these sensitivities can decrease their ability to tolerate stress. Please know that even in a loving and attentive home, some children are just born wired for some sensory differences. It doesn’t mean you as a parent did anything wrong. But in our population of hurt kids, we do often see sensory differences. So, I am suggesting that you become a detective and notice your child’s environment to see how you can make an adjustment, if necessary.

Just like learning about the brain can help children understand what is happening to them during a meltdown, also, learning a little about sensory processing can help them understand themselves better too. So the way I explain sensory processing is in a really simplified version; how you might teach your child. I am making this really simplified.

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We can easily think if sensory process as if we have a ‘cup’ which will hold the amount of sensory input in our environment. You can have a big cup or a little cup for sensory information. If you have a big cup it takes a lot of sensory input to fill your cup. If you have a little cup it doesn’t take much sensory input and your cup is full or overflowing. You can have a big cup for some senses and a little cup for others.

If the child’s environment is too sensory rich, or if it doesn’t provide enough sensory input, this can reduce their ability to regulate their emotions.

Think about your child and see if you can figure out whether their cups are large or small – in other words, whether they are sensory seekers or sensory avoiders. Let’s

start with smells.

I was told this story from an adopted 18 years old,  that certain cooking smells used to trigger early memories in his birth country. He said, “I’d be going along in my day, everything going just fine and then I’d smell something and all of a sudden I would be in a bad mood for the rest of the day.” If his parents or caregivers had known this ahead of time, they could have done things to eliminate that smell trigger for him, or prepare him for it, maybe de-sensitize him. But smell isn’t just a trigger like that, bringing back, in his case unpleasant memories. Some children are just more sensitive to certain smells and the smell – not an associated memory- can dysregulate them.  Cooking, cleaning supplies, other people, perfume, school supplies like markers and glue are possible culprits. Begin to notice if your child is affected by either seeking or avoiding certain smells.


School cafeterias are the worst for smells and SOUND. Sometimes home isn’t much better. We had one of those large, busy and active families, and can I be honest, I am super sensitive to sound. My poor children were taught to be quieter than what was their comfort level because *I* needed it in order to function. I homeschooled them and let me tell you, we did a lot of things outside, where they could use their ‘outside voices’ when they were younger.

Other noises at home might be voices, appliances like the vacuum, a hair dryer, a blender. But there is the other end of the spectrum. Some houses are too quiet for some children. There’s the story of the 6-year-old, who, for example, freaks out if her environment is too quiet. She’ll manufacture her own noise to reach her own comfort level. If her caregivers didn’t know this about her, and they weren’t ok making allowances for that need in her, they’d probably butt heads a lot if the family didn’t like loud noises.

Some children have sensitivities to certain tastes. Maybe don’t extend the invitation to join the ‘clean plate club’ if there is a chance that your child has taste sensitivities. Go ahead and pass that hot sauce even if they ask to put it on your grandma’s prized casserole dish.

Some children, from the time they are old enough to move around on their own, will find the toy basket and DUMP IT ALL ON THE GROUND. These kids have to have a messy environment. They crave that visual stimulation. For other children, this kind of visual chaos is dysregulating. Often our kids won’t tell us that these things are bothering them, so we have to be intentional about finding it out.

The one who runs at full speed to give you a hug and is always up in your face is a touch sensory seeker. It’s a delicate balance between teaching them good personal boundaries and not making them feel ashamed for their need for deeper touch stimulation.  On the opposite end would be the child who avoids certain textures, or recoils at hugs.

The last two senses are proprioception and vestibular, which are also two general types of body movements that your kiddos can do which actually increase their ability to regulate. We’ll talk about those in a future blog post.

For now, be aware that there may be things in your child’s environment that make it harder for them to regulate and make them more prone to meltdowns. When you can teach even young kids about sensory processing, you can let them know that they are not a bad kid for having times of the day or certain environments that are hard for them to keep it all together.

Knowing that you are on their side even when they are having a really hard day can make all the difference on the world to them. And to you!


In the last blog post I wrote about shame’s role in your child’s meltdowns and dysregulation. And then I left you hanging, with but a mere promise to answer the question: HOW DO WE HELP THEM?

I propose that we can teach our kids a little bit about their brains, and this can take some of the stigma and shame out of those past meltdowns.

You can teach your kiddo about their brain in simple terms, so that they understand what happens behind the scenes in their brains during a meltdown.

When they understand how their brain’s actually go ‘off line’, they will experience less shame when they ‘blow it’ and flip their lid. This can reduce the frequency, duration and intensity of meltdowns. AND it can give them new experiences that challenge those old tapes playing in their head.

Now, natural consequences will follow in the aftermath of a meltdown, and there are times when they need to make restitution for what they’ve done. But if we can get our kids to understand that they are not bad people when a meltdown happens– that it is their ‘thinking brain’  that is ‘off-line’ so to speak, we can empower them to not re-cycle into further meltdowns because of the shame and confusion they might feel about what just happened.

Let me say this, shame is not the same as guilt. Shame is not a motivator toward better thinking and behaving. Its what keeps people stuck and dysregulated.  Guilt says, I did wrong, I can improve. Shame says : I AM wrong, I AM a lost cause.

In today’s post, we’re going to learn about Dr. Dan Seigel’s hand model of the brain. I’ve written about it here.

Please watch the video from that post, so you can educate yourself about what it means to flip your lid and become dysregulated, then come back here and we’ll learn how to take that language and make it understandable for your child.

When talking to your child, pick a time when you both are calm. Use toys or puppets if you want, to make the learning more fun and so your child doesn’t think they are going to be in trouble for anything. That is very important that they don’t think they’ve done something wrong. Use language similar to this:

“You know how you (or the name of the toy you are using) sometimes have a hard day and get upset about things and you don’t really know why? That can feel really scary if you don’t know why. Did you know that it’s because of something going on in our brain that you aren’t even aware of? Do you want to see your brain? I can show you what it looks like.

The upstairs brain is where you make the best decisions and do the best things, even when you are feeling really upset. Some people like to call it the big brain, the thinking brain, the upstairs brain, or the wise leader.

Now, open up your ‘brain’ model and peek inside. Lift your fingers a little bit, see where your thumb is? (see picture above, the lower part of the hand/palm on the bottom right)That’s part of your downstairs brain, or little brain, animal brain, or feeling brain. That’s where your really big feelings come from, it lets you feel really upset, like when you are mad or scared or frustrated.

There is nothing wrong with feeling upset, that’s normal, especially when your upstairs brain helps you calm down. Close your fingers again. What do you notice about your upstairs brain and your downstairs brain? (top left picture). The thinking brain and the feeling brain are touching! When the two are touching, the upstairs, thinking brain can help your downstairs, feeling brain express your emotions calmly.

Sometimes when we get really upset, we can flip our lids (see lower right picture). See how your upstairs brain is no longer touching your downstairs brain? That means it cannot help it stay calm. This is what is happening when you have a meltdown. Then what we need to do is find a way to get your thinking brain working together with your downstairs brain.”

At this point, you can explain to your child that everyone has this happen to them – even mom and dad! The idea is to teach your child about what goes on behind the scenes of a meltdown so they can know that we don’t think they are bad kids when they flip their lids. And neither are you when YOU flip your lid.

There is a lot you can do after teaching this hand model of the brain, maybe then teaching some calming techniques such as this .

Or you could just use the time to let your child know that you’re there to help him or her when things feel really out of control. How might you use this brain model to help your kids feel less shame about their past? I’d love to know!

Meet the Need Before the Meltdown: the role of shame in your child’s meltdowns

I am familiar with a boy, when he was younger, would often get dysregulated over something that triggered him – he’d hit, scream, fight, say terrible things to his adopted mother, but then, once he finally calmed a little, he would often ramp up again, for no apparent reason, certainly not for the original reason. Do you know what was happening? The ‘new’ meltdown was because of the shame he felt for having just done whatever terrible thing he did. And so, the meltdown would start all over again. I mean, at the time, it looked to his mother like just one continuous meltdown, and it was only later that she realized the mechanics going on.  When he was operating out of his shame core, this only fueled the meltdown.

We must never forget that our children have a story that started long before we met them. Your child’s history affects their body, brain, beliefs, behaviors, and biology. One way their history affects their beliefs is how they feel about themselves as persons.

All infants deserve to be seen, heard, and valued by their caregivers. What happens when this very basic need goes unmet in infancy or early childhood? How does that affect how they see themselves as precious people?

Our children from hard places often come to us with a very well developed shame core. They’ve already received many messages given to them before we ever met them, that were negative. Some of our kiddos are swimming in shame and their drowning looks like bad behaviors and meltdowns.

It’s been said that abuse sends the message, “I hate you” and neglect sends the message “You don’t exist”. Our kiddos (and if I’m being honest here, the kid in me still struggles with this) aren’t separating their experiences from who they are. They’re not separating out their history and their behaviors from their own self identity and worth. They need us to support them to do that.  BUT HOW????

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some strategies and techniques to help our children break free from the shame of their histories and the shame of past and current failures. Please stay tuned…


What To Do When Your Child Has A Hard Time Accepting ‘No’

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Even though your child is now safe with caring parents, accepting no is still hard for children haunted by feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and uncared for in the past. Research tells us that sometimes when the abuse/neglect happened to them before they were verbal, these memories get stored in their bodies and are carried as vague impressions and feelings without clear events recalled, or a time and place associated with them.* They can react to today’s no by reliving all the no’s of yesterdays gone by. “No, you may not have a cookie 10 minutes before dinner time” feels to them like the years of having to go without food, comfort, safety, or connection.

Here are three strategies that have proved sucessful to help children accept no:

1)Validate those feelings.

A powerful way to help children accept no the future is by validating the feelings they have now, right in the moment. “I know you really want (whatever it is he wants but can’t have) and I understand how hard it is for you to not have it” is an empathetic message that doesn’t give in, it acknowledges the struggle.  Remember that when their flight, fight, or freeze response kicks in, in their world, at that moment it is the worst possible thing they can experience. What they need now from you is compassion for their histories and empathy with their deep feelings. A hug, eye contact, getting down on their eye level are all ways of staying connected with them in the moment, offering them your strength and safety. It is hard to accept no. Whenever you can enter into your child’s world and acknowledge their deep pain, you bring them connecting compassion, which helps them better accept no the next time.

2)Practice accepting no in a gentle and kind way.

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A fun way to teach a child new skill or reinforce a lesson is through role playing with puppets or stuffed animals. This helps to not make the activity about your relationship with the child, or what they have not done correct in the past because the toys do all the talking

You’ll demonstrate to the puppets the better way to accept no and then encourage your child to teach it again to the puppet or toy. This reinforces their learning. Then repeat with teaching your puppet the not gentle and kind way of accepting no. Here is where you can get as silly as you want to, demonstrating funny ways of not accepting no very well. Invite your child to come up with a few more not gentle and kind ways.  Your child and the toy can take turns each being mom or the child, demonstrating both ways. The idea is to make it fun and connecting, not shaming. Keeping it fun and silly when you practice will help in the real-life moments too, next time you have to say no. This role playing is best done when your child is calm and regulated. Stop before it loses it’s fun.

3) Give lots of ‘yeses’ whenever you can.

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Giving ‘yeses’ as often as possible to your children is like ‘money in the bank’ or in this case, good feelings in the bank. The more times you can say yes to even the little things, the better it will be when you have to ‘withdraw’ from the emotional bank by saying no. We’ve all been there, telling our children no just because it was easier, when really it would have been ok to let them have or do whatever it was they asked for. What can help is taking a breath before answering their request, to get that extra time needed to think before the autopilot no. This won’t make you a permissive parent, but it will open your eyes to more opportunities to say yes to them.

* Reference:

A., V. D. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.