What Puts Children at Risk for Behavioral Issues?

TBRI® has identified six early risk factors that impact how some children think, trust, and connect with others. These risk factors change children’s brain development and brain chemistry, leading to a higher risk for emotional problems and mal-adaptive behaviors.
Early Risk Factors For Children
1)Difficult pregnancy •including medical, drugs/alcohol, crisis or other trauma. •persistent, high level of stress throughout pregnancy.
2)Difficult birth •perhaps the newborn was briefly without oxygen, leading to mild neurological insult.
3)Early hospitalization •greater exposure to painful touch rather than nurturing, comforting touch in the first days of life.
4)Abuse •Children from abusive backgrounds are always on guard, hyper vigilant to the environment around them.
5)Neglect •The message sent to a child from a neglectful background is ‘you don’t exist.’ •Children from neglectful backgrounds often suffer from the most severe behavioral problems and developmental deficits.
6)Trauma •Any number of traumas in the child’s life (witnessing an extreme event, for example) can cause the child’s developmental trajectory to change in response.

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.

Empowering: internal physical needs

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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.



Flipping your Lid

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.


Life Value Scripts: Use Your Words

Image result for use your wordsAs 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.


-Gail Heaton

The Power Struggle

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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.

Smell the Roses

Image result for smell the roses , blow out the candlesWhen 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.


Infinite Worth

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.


Joy in the Journey

He stood there looking at me with pale, icy blue eyes, staring as if through me. He clutched the meager selection of clothing he chose for the one small duffel bag of possessions he allowed himself to carry that cold night he left the family he had known for the last 11 years. This son of mine, barely age 18, who I loved from the moment I met him and his twin as seven-year-old boys from a Russian orphanage. “You don’t have to leave like this”, I pleaded, “you can continue working this stuff out in your head and still live here with your family.” But his jaw was set in that way I knew meant my words had no impact, it was something he had been thinking about for a long time.

“But what about all the kids still left in that orphanage, what about them? Why was I chosen and not them?” Did he really think I had the answer to that? Would he believe me if I answered?

There were other words he said that night. Strong, clear words of his that he’d been taking 11 years to be able to say. Words of a deeply thoughtful but guilt-ridden, troubled child now legally a man. My son.

The night he moved out, he took a piece of my heart with him, and my prayers that he might feel that part of my heart as it went with him into the night and into the unknown. “It might be a while before I see you again, Mom. I’ve got a lot of things to figure out and I need to do this on my own.”

Why o why do we think we have to do anything of this magnitude on our own? We are not meant to figure it out alone. It’s the plight of the human condition. Self-deceived into thinking we have what it takes (the lie of the Garden) at the same time deceived into believing we are not worthy of His Rescue and that we have to do it alone.

Though only one of my sons has formally been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), they both suffer from a difficulty to attach due to complex developmental trauma. I think most people underestimate the value of attachment between children and parents. Attachment is the glue that keeps a family intact, the motivator behind children wanting to do the things their parents ask of them, it is the reason people want to be kind to one another. Remove attachment and you might have a reduced ability to develop integrity, empathy, or real love for another human.

The human condition suffers from an attachment disorder to God. 

Through no fault of their own my sons were subjected to severe trauma and neglect from birth to age 7 such that their brains literally got wired for distrust, working against the very thing it means to be human. “And I need to do this on my own.” So each of my sons struggle in relationships and trusting the very ones who most want to help them.

Does this sound familiar as the human condition with our distrust of God?

It is in the midst of parenting two sons who are terrified of trusting again, I learn about my own terror at trusting God and the result is Joy in the Journey. (James 1:2-8)

Many times over, I am taken to a crossroads. For the sake of my sons, I find joy in the journey because the end is nowhere in my sight, all I can do is trust the Process. When times are difficult, and for their sakes and mine, I retrain my own brain and find joy in THIS MOMENT of victory over the monster of attachment disorder. The crossroads come each time to offer me the choice not to wallow in the what should have beens while missing out on the joys in the little progresses toward connection that they have made since we adopted them and brought them into our family. Because quite frankly when raising children with attachment frailties, and seeing the parallels to the human condition of separations from God, there are times when I need to feel that this moment is enough.

The beauty in every this moment is that I come to the end of myself and relish every victory today toward health and healing. For them. For me. For humanity.  I choose to live in all of the beautiful little THIS MOMENTS. Raising sons with attachment frailties teaches me the journey IS beautiful. Every time either of them call me mom, it is a journey of beauty as they realize their change in status from orphan to son.

And every day we can cry out Abba, Father! And we, too, embrace our change in spiritual status.

“For you have not received a spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the Spirit of divine adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”


father abba