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What is Real?



Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

I still remember the very first time I read The Velveteen Rabbit, a childhood favorite, to my first born daughter. I couldn’t get through it without crying at the powerful story line. What I didn’t know then, but do now is that it has a deep message for us adoptive moms.

Have you heard the funny one-liner: ‘I was a great mom before I had kids?’ And it’s true isn’t it? How about this one? ‘You are not their real mom, you just adopted them.’ That one stings. If you are like most adoptive moms, this triggers second guessing yourself. A statement like that is ground zero for comparisons between ourselves and the real moms, the biological moms. The sting is deepest when coming from our child’s angry mouth. Understand, I am a biological mother to five children. And I am the adoptive mother to two.  Am I only real to five of my seven children?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I think I should do this or that to be a real mom, whether adoptive or not. And on those days strung together into weeks, months, seasons when I can’t seem to ever get to this or that, or whatever bar I’ve set for myself that says I’ve arrived, I call myself a faker. Unreal, imaginary, nonexistent, illusory, immaterial, intangible fake, false, imitation, counterfeit.

Anything but real.

But what is real anyway? Take a lesson from one who knows: “Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

You see, none of us start out as real anyway, not the Skin Horse kind of real.

Most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby,” says the ever-wise Skin Horse, who should know these things.

Real happens slowly, so slowly you won’t even realize it. Real happens with kids snuggling up with you and running their fingers through your hair, getting it caught and ripping parts out. OUCH! It hurts sometimes to become real. That’s ok, “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Real happens as you cry your eyes out over your love for your child or children, only wanting the very best for them and thanking God He gave them to you. Real happens as you cry with them each time they experience the struggles common to humanity, but oh, so hard for them to feel every first time. Real happens each time tired arms carry them to bed after they fell asleep in your arms. Real happens as you kiss unseen but oh so painful boo-boos received long before you ever met them, and for which Band-Aids will not satisfy. Real happens over late night talks with pre-teens who alternately need you so much, and are embarrassed you’re so uncool. Real happens as you hold your grandchild in your arms the first time, as your grown child, now herself a mother, looks on in amazement, seeing your deep, generational love. Over and over again, these are the stuff of real.

Real happens even when the love your child has for you isn’t that loud demonstrative love that most of us expect ( and hope for) from our kids. No, their’s is buried deep underneath their past, underneath the anger and hurt they feel for what happened to them before they met you.

And, if I’m being honest, real happens as you neglect yourself a bit too often, caring for children instead of your own needs. But, Skin Horse says, when we’re real, “ these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

It’s true, none of us started out as real, but somewhere along the way we became. And we didn’t even know it. And the best part? “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” That Skin Horse tells it like it is.

Reaching Forward

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but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead  Philippians 3:13 NASB

My 6 year old granddaughter stands on the wooden, built-in bench on my deck outside, facing the grassy yard. She’s holding in one hand a favorite toy, a plastic stegosaurus bigger than her hand; her grip is tight. Taking the longest downed tree limb we found in the yard earlier that day that has leaves at the very tip, I stand beside her and I stretch out the leafed limb in front of her as far out as I can. She then leaps out as far as she can, arms outstretched. She jumps off the bench and grabs for as many leaves she can with the one hand but still grasps the toy in the other hand, which she forgot she is holding. She lands on the ground, still clutching the toy. “Aww, I didn’t get any leaves, let me try again”, she says, as she lays the toy down this time and readies herself to jump again. Success.  Again and again. “Bubbe, reach forward more” she instructs me until the limb is stripped bare. We laugh and laugh. 

“The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let things go”

Long before memes and catch phrases about falling leaves and letting go, Paul taught deep truth.

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Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead.

Six-year-olds get it, why can’t the rest of us? You can’t reach forward that well if you’re still holding onto dinosaurs. 

Paul uses the Greek verb epilanthano (forgetting), to suggest a deliberate act, a matter of the will, a resolve to no longer dwell on the past. To let go. Letting go is what we’re asking of our children from hard beginnings, isn’t it? That they let go of all the times in the past that their ever alert survival brain kept them safe from harm when no one else would. That they forget how dangerous it is to trust. That they forget the shame of rejection. Those are some big dinosaurs and their grip is tight. 

but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead  Philippians 3:13 NASB

The Greek word for reaching forward is epekteino emphasizing really stretching. You gotta get that tree limb really out there, that’s the best part of the game. And the real secret is fully empty hands as you reach for the prize. Whether the price is a fistful of green leaves, a child’s attachment and feelings of safely in a family, or ‘the prize of the calling of God’, you’re gonna have to let go of the stegosaurus. 

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Be blessed,

Gail

Re-Building Back Fences or Living Your Life With Purpose?

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake. 
-Psalm 23

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My husband and I went to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Park over the weekend. The rainy haze didn’t dampen the majesty nor the impact this moment in time had on me. These aren’t wild horses, but still, I was taken by how at home they were in their pasture, happily grazing away at the portion given to them.

Notice the fence in the foreground? It seems more decorative than functional against those strong beasts. I wonder if they know they can easily jump over or easily run through. Actually, maybe just a strong leaning up against is all that’s needed to break free to other pastures not of this fold.

Do you have a leaning child? One who longingly looks to the supposedly greener pastures elsewhere? The limit pusher, the one with the chocolate ice cream in one hand but crying for a cracker. too? Do you have a fence jumper, currently in someone else’s pasture, living the large life, if only in her own mind? Somewhere an 18 year old says, ‘well, mom, dad, it’s been fun, but I’m outta here, done with your rules and constraints and family dinners, and that God of yours, and the love that you give me that makes me uncomfortable because I still don’t feel worthy. Somewhere there’s a 9 year old who keeps running away because his survival brain tells him that the vulnerability of being loved and held accountable in a family is too scary: the memory of having only self to rely on before he met you is still too strong a pull.

If we’re able, we drag them back and re-build the fences. But even in the building project, we have but one real choice that gives the most impact on them: live our pasture life with real purpose, answering the unspoken question they ask, ‘is it really that wonderful in your pasture?’ Maybe the time for talk is over. Maybe now we show them by our own walk that the things they think are only out there have been here all along. Safety, love, family, belonging, a God who see and redeems, adventure, happiness, joy, peace. Have you been mending fences with the wrong materials of judgement, offense, bitterness, anger , rejection? I have. But that doesn’t leave space for God to work in them or in me. And for those children for whom we can no longer drag back to our pasture, what can we show them about our good land when they sneak a look back from time to time?

Sometimes I need to ask myself, how much leaning am *I* doing in God’s pasture?

-Gail

*This post was inspired by the book Reckless Faith: a 40-day journey to saying yes, by Beth Guckenberger and by God’s beautiful creation as experienced last weekend.

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I came across a bible verse today from Isaiah 58:12 that I think encapsulates the purpose or goal of “The Connecting Space”:  

“Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.”

The word ‘restorer’ is the Hebrew word ‘shub’, which is used over 1000 times in the Hebrew scriptures, all having to do with movement back, do-over, re-establish, turn around.   The ultimate restorer of course is Jesus (Hebrew name Yeshua). Those who follow in His path, must also be restorers. What He calls us to do, He also authorizes us to do, and equips us for. Remember that.

Bible scholar Skip Moen explains the power behind ‘shub’ this way: “God’s heart is bent on recovering what was lost.  It is fixed on repairing what is broken.  It is committed to restoring what was once there.  That’s why we call it salvation, not indoctrination.  We are saved from something.  We are brought back from death to life.  The purpose of God is to redeem you from destruction, to restore you to His loving care and favor.”

What an amazing task we are given as parents of children from hard places, whether those hard places are results from the life they had before coming to our families through adoption or fostering, or whether they are our natural born children who are struggling in some area for whatever reason. YOU are how God chooses to show Himself to your children – you are the vessel of restoration to your children – you are called, authorized and equipped to repair the connections your children most need, and ultimately to bridge that gap between them and God. Yes, it is a big task, but it is what He empowers you and I to do. Read all of Isaiah 12 today and see what it takes for you to be in a position to shub for your children. I welcome your thoughts and comments!

Managing Relationship Expectations Between Siblings

Our sister site, Suddenly Siblings™ is geared specifically to bio and other children already in the home when a family adopts or fosters. Its vision is to support the family by specifically empowering the siblings of children who come from hard places. One of the common challenges in blended families comes from the miskaten idea that the new sibling will automatically get along with the children already in the home and the other way around. How can you support your child to understand that there may be challenges, while still focusing on the positives? Here’s the latest article .

The Importance of Open Communication

Building strong communication skills isn’t usually what most parents think of when preparing to add new foster or adopted siblings to the existing children in the family. Many parents rely on how things have been going, assuming that their ‘resident children’ (the ones already in the home) will speak up if things become difficult for them.

But what most often happens is that the resident children are afraid to speak up when problems arise, for fear it would be just more stress added to their already stressed family.

Why?

Fostering and adoption are beautiful things, but they do cause family dynamics to shift in ways that are unsettling for resident children. Most resident children are not prepared adequately for the changes that will affect them personally. Most are unprepared to speak up to their parents for their own needs.

Most parents assume that the level of communication openness already existing in their family prior to fostering or adoption will be sufficient for the resident child to withstand the changes coming to him or her. But even in the most openly communicative families, these changes can be more unsettling than the resident children are able to say. They’ll need support to express themselves in healthy ways.

Preparing your resident child for the new sibling takes hard work! Dreaming about instant friendships between the siblings is fun. But having the transition play out in real time is . . . well, not always fun. Being in an environment where open communication is the norm will help your resident child adjust better and make a smoother transition for everyone.

So, what does it take to have more open communication? How can you, already consumed with the needs of your new child, learn what it looks like to inadvertently silence the voice of your resident child? What can you do to avoid that? How can you empower your resident child to speak up about their own needs?

It takes determination, but it also takes know-how.

You can be 100% determined, but if you don’t know what to do, you will struggle.

That’s why I recommend starting today to work on your communication skills with your resident children.

Anyone can begin today to create a more open environment, no matter how long things have been difficult.

We’ve created an e-course called 8 Steps to Empowered Voices that takes you through a step-by-step process to increase the level of communication openness in your family. It’s full of content to help you understand:

  • WHY your resident child is often reluctant to talk to you about their struggles
  • WHAT you can do to support them
  • and HOW to connect with them even if it’s years later (like with me)

You can support your children already in the home – it’s never too late!

Gail

But Aren’t You Just Coddling Your Kids?

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Be honest. Can you relate? It’s OK if that’s where your thoughts are right now. It’s a pretty common belief born from traditional, authoritarian parenting. We’re “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.

Dr. Becky Bailey, whose quote is below, specializes in early childhood education and developmental psychology. She often writes about the dark side of fear-based punishment. This is true for all children, but even more so for our children who experience any of the 6 risk factors for behavior issues. 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.

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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.

Gail

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.

SOUND

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!

REDUCE SHAME BY TEACHING ABOUT THE BRAIN

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.

Make a fist with your hand, tucking your thumb under your fingers (see picture above, the hand at the top left ). This handy little model of the brain can go with you wherever you are. You may already know that you have has a left side and a right side of your brain. You also have an upstairs and a downstairs part of your brain. Each part of your brain helps you do very important things.

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!