I don’t know anyone who likes to accept ‘no’ for an answer, do you? Even us parents get that internal churning feeling when we’re told no about something in the grown-up world. And let’s face it, all children want what they want, when they want it. How much more so for our children from hard places, coming from early trauma, neglect, and loss. These hurt children of ours can react to ‘no’ with intense physical and emotional pain in a way that completely overwhelms their system, causing them to strike back with intent to take us down with them. A simple ‘no’ from us sends them into a tailspin of defiant behaviors, and we have no idea what underlying pain they are feeling when all we see is their anger. Oh, the intense anger. Or maybe your child shuts down instead, saying, ‘that’s ok, no big deal, I didn’t really want it anyway.” This response is tricky because it appears he’s fine. In the future I’ll write about this ‘freeze’ response.
Something that adds to this brewing mess is our expectations that our children should just accept ‘no’ in obedience to us. Traditional parenting says ‘do it just because I said so’. That may seem to work in kiddos who are very securely attached to parents, but demanding obedience is the special sauce of disaster for our insecure children. Why can’t they just trust us that we know what’s best for them?
One of the reasons accepting ‘no’ is so hard for children from trauma backgrounds is that, despite now living in safe homes with caring parents, our children often remain haunted by feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and un-cared for in the past. And when the abuse/neglect happened to them before they were verbal, these memories get stored in their bodies absent conscious awareness of time and place.* Research tells us these earliest memories of neglect and loss are buried deep within and are carried as vague impressions and feelings without clear events associated to them.* What can happen then is, they can react to today’s ‘no’ by reliving all the ‘nos’ of yesterdays gone by. They react to you saying ‘no’ in this moment but heap on all the past times when they did not have what they needed. “No, you may not have a cookie 10 minutes before dinner time” feels to them like the years of having to go without any food for long periods of time. No wonder they freak out.
There are several proactive strategies to gently lead your child to accept no. Today I’ll focus on just two. This works preventatively not only for accepting no, but for any number of behaviors that stem from feeling of loss and pain. Again, these are pro-active, meant to build trust and internal resources before events occur. They are not stop-the-behavior-when-it-happens strategies. We can talk about those in later posts.
Offer lots of practice accepting ‘no’ in a gentle and kind way. If meltdowns, whining and screaming have been the ways your child communicated in the past, it may be the only thing they know to do. Sometimes they need to see a better way to know what you expect. One of my favorite ways to teach new skills to a child is through role playing with puppets or stuffed animals/toys. This turns into not only a great teaching/reinforcing lesson, but it is also an amazing connecting activity. Puppets or stuffed toys help to not make the activity about your relationship with the child, or what they have not done correct in the past – the toys do all the talking; they do the hard work.
You start by ‘teaching’ one of the puppets/stuffed toys how to be gentle and kind when accepting no, as your child watches the puppet ‘practice’. Take turns with your child and let him also teach to a toy. Then repeat with showing the toy 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. Your child can come up with a few more ‘wrong’ ways, and don’t be surprised if they may even include some of their own. You and your child’s toy could then role play mom saying no, and child accepting no in a kind gentle way. 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 moment too by helping to diffuse the situation next time you do have to say ‘no’. The key to this kind of learning is that you do it when your child is calm and regulated and stop before it loses it’s fun. Practice often with the gentle and kind way to reinforce positive behavior. Praise your child when you see any improvement in real life.
Give lots of ‘yeses’ whenever you can. This 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’. I have been guilty of telling my children ‘no’ just because it was easier for me, when really it would have been ok to let them have or do whatever it was they asked for. What helped me was to take a breath before answering their request, so that I have that extra time needed to think about it before the automatic ‘no’ that all of us parents sometimes get caught up in. This won’t make you a permissive parent, but it will open your eyes to more opportunities to say yes to them. Some families find success in creating a YES JAR. Once you fill your jar, tell your kids about it and be willing to say yes anytime they ask. Watch as Kayla North of Empowered to Connect discusses the simplicity of adding YES to your communication with your children:
Van Der Kolk, B., (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
Quite frankly, our children have a lot of issues they face daily. And they bring a lot of issue to the family. When we are trying to find the root cause of their pain, which is expressed through their behaviors, we can come at it in any number of ways, but I have found that one of the best ways is to frame it as a curious question, “What do you need?” When I coach parents, I usually ask them to pick one or two issues they are particularly troubled by that they want support in. And, in essence, this is me asking, ‘What do you need?’
A big part of my coaching approach is to teach parents to see into their children’s actual needs by seeing beyond the behavior. Meeting their needs builds trust and enhances attachment. This is especially true if we can be pro-active and meet their needs before they express the need. But even in the midst of a behavior, asking “What do you need” is far more productive than “why are you acting this way?”
This hasn’t always been easy for me, I’ll admit. One of my stumbling blocks was that I thought I already knew the answer to the question. I’ll TELL you what you need:
You need to stop acting up. You need to get over it. You need to do what I say.
I could let go of those beliefs when I began to cultivate an attitude of true curiosity about what is underneath their behavior that in the past I just wanted STOPPED. When I understood the importance of honoring who they are, where they’ve come from, and Who is in charge of their healing, I change. I knew their voice mattered, so I knew the question had to be “what do you need?”.
The brain is plastic, which means it adapts to these situations that the child faces. Responses to these environments are ‘wired’ within their brain and are changeable to suit the needs of the specific situation. The bad news is that the behaviors that helped them cope in their early environment can become mal-adaptive once they are in your home and safe. They no longer need the behaviors for survival, but their brains are still wired to feel that way. Thankfully, the brain remains plastic throughout our life and still adapts to new situations. What this means for your child is that, with help, he or she can heal and learn to function in your home.
The TBRI® Empowering, Connecting, and Correcting principles help you enhance your home environment to bring about even more felt safety and love. Look for an introductory workshop in Missoula coming this summer.
TBRI® uses Empowering Principles to address physical needs, Connecting Principles for attachment needs, and Correcting Principles to disarm fear-based behaviors.
Let’s look at one of the key ideas in the empowering principle, which address the physiological and ecological factors that can impact a child’s behavior. Physiological Strategies focus on the internal physical needs of the child, things like hydration and blood sugar.
One way to manage glucose levels is by:
- Small, regular snacks every 2 hours
- Balance protein and complex carbs
- Avoid high sugar content foods
- Keep a water bottle available at all times
When you and your child work together to create healthy and fun snacks you have Connection, too!
Not convinced that sugar makes a difference in behavior? Watch this short video.
Watch as Dr. Dan Siegel talks in very clear terms about the brain processes that control regulation. Children as young as 5 can use this model to understand what is happening in the brain when we or our kids ‘lose it’. Once your child has flipped their lid, there isn’t much we can do for them until they come back into regulation. This is not the time to try to reason with them, they no longer have the cognitive ability to respond in that way; they no longer have access to the thinking parts of their brain.
Knowing the brain processes that are involved can help you be more aware to keep watch for those subtle signs of pre-dyregulation. When you catch it in time, there are things you can do to encourage and empower them back into regulation before they’re flipped. One such technique is mentioned here. I’ll be posting more later and also some tips for when they are already flipped, so stay tuned.
As you undoubtedly already know from experience, children from hard places often express their needs or feelings through throwing a fit, withdrawing from you or running away, or all out aggressive physical behaviors. Often these behaviors can seem to come from out of nowhere and with little provocation. Many times we parents or caregivers are stumped as to what just set them off.
As you learn to understand the underlying reasons for the behaviors (maybe they are fear-based, for example) it is also important for you to help you child express their needs and feelings by using their words, not those maladaptive behaviors. But don’t count on your child naturally being able to express them-self with words or even to know the importance of using their words. Maybe they have not had many positive experiences using their voice to get their basic needs met. Or perhaps they lack the social or cognitive skills. Whatever the reason for the deficit, they will need you to navigate this with them, until they can handle it on their own. It may take time.
One way to help them understand how to talk about their needs and feelings is to model for them how you are feeling on any given day. “Right now I am feeling sad. What are you feeling?” This helps them to not only build vocabulary for their feelings, but it normalizes feelings – everyone has them.
Another way to help them is through life value scripts. A life value script is a phrase made up of the fewest words necessary to get the idea across to teach your child the social skills necessary to successfully navigate their world without resorting to maladaptive behaviors. One such life value script is “use your words”, which teaches them to put down the physical behavior they are using to ‘survive’ and instead to use their words to get their needs met.
When you practice “use your words” do so when you child is calm and you are sharing a connective moment. By practicing this life script often, you are proactively teaching the skills, not just having to react and correct the negative. They need to know that this is a good thing for them to do. Children from hard places often use physical aggression as a survival technique long after the threat to them is over; it becomes habit. Teaching them to use their words to get their needs met will allow them to replace old coping mechanisms that no long serve them. You have to offer a new way of communicating if you expect the old way to be replaced by them.
You will need to prompt them often to “use your words” and when they do, you will need to hold the moment with them and not judge the rightness or wrongness of their words. The goal is to add the script, “use your words” as a way for them to remember in the moment that there is a better way to express themselves than acting out. In order for them to feel safe expressing themselves using their words, you will need to be ok today that their words may sting in some cases. The day you hear those words is not the day you teach them to talk kindly. First steps first and the first step is to get them to verbally express their inner world instead of resorting to physical violence or running away.
When you add praise after they express themselves using words (even if their expression is explosive), they will learn that you are a safe space for them. “That’s great using your words!” When children are given voice,*they begin to feel safe and until they feel safe, even if they are safe, they won’t relax and let down their guard enough to let you in their world.
*click on the link for a short video from Dr. Purvis on giving voice in a more general sense.
I wonder how many of us parents see our children’s control issues as them trying to control us, rather than the child trying to control their own little world but very often using strategies that are not healthy. I wonder if when we think our child is trying to control or manipulate us, we take it personally and that belief triggers something in us that makes us start the actual power struggle. Are you letting your own triggered issues interfere in your ability to see beyond your child’s behavior to their true needs? Next time you are about to be caught in this power struggle loop ask yourself if what you child is asking for is really unreasonable after all.
One of the things I most love about TBRI and connected parenting is that it teaches us parents the concept of shared power (in appropriate amounts). When we allow even our youngest children to be a part of the decisions, we give them a voice and that builds trust in and connections with us.
Here is a short clip on sharing power from Karyn Purvis.
When that feeling of anxiety comes on your child (or yourself), it is because the amygdala in the brain is sending out signals that there is a threat and the body fuels up to respond in a fight, flight, or freeze response. It doesn’t really matter if the threat is real or imagined, or triggered by some past trauma, the body treats it the same way. One of the techniques that have proved helpful for others who are experiencing anxiety is what is termed strong breathing, or deep breathing.
Strong breathing triggers the body’s relaxation response, which is also an automatic response like fight, flight, or freeze.
The idea is to practice this breathing every day, at the times your children (or you) are calm so that it becomes easier to access in the moment of anxiety. In the moment of anxiety, it is very hard to breath if there has not been practice during the calm times. Many people find that having a code word associated with this technique helps them remember it when they need it the most. In our house, we call it ‘funny breathing’, coined by my 4 year- old- grand daughter who loves it when we mix up the order.
One example is to imagine a sweet smelling rose and breathe in its scent for a count of three, hold it for a one count, then imagine blowing out candles for a three count. It’s funny to mix it up and breath in the candle and blow out the rose, we do it this way when the 4 year old gets dys-regulated and needs something to get her out of the cycle.
Smelling soup, or hot chocolate, then blowing on it to cool it are also other examples. You and your child can come up with your own, too.
To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” Psalm 25:1
This word, soul, is the Hebrew word nephesh. Hebrew is a concrete language and this word has the meaning of breath, that physical movement of air in and out of a body that we’ve just been talking about. Breath, hebraically, is a concrete evidence of life. Nephesh becomes the concrete expression of who I am, completely – my physical being, my emotions, my thoughts and my actions. Nephesh is ME. And You. The Psalmist says that transforming prayer is the lifting up of my very essence to become joined with the Father. Breath in…breath out.
When I went through the training to become a Registered Circle of Security Parenting Facilitator, I had no idea that the man training for the week was none other than Kent Hoffman, one of the three founders of Circle of Security. He is a brilliant man, with many years of clinical counselling experience, but I think the thing that stood out the most to me is that he is so relatable. His love for humanity was evident and his honestly about how he too still sometimes struggles with not feeling worthy made me know that we are all in this together. Here is his TedX Talk from a few years ago which I think is amazing and is something I try to keep in the forefront of my mind with everyone I meet. Please enjoy.