When we are parenting children who have only known chaos, self-survival, or trauma, we might feel helpless, incapable, and stressed. That anxiety can trigger our own self-survival reactions, which can reinforce our child’s coping skills of anxiety, fear, or survival instincts. Establishing secure attachment with adopted or foster tweens and teens is rooted in our ability to regulate our own emotions and stress.
We can then be the healthy, nurturing, and safe adult that our foster or adopted children need to learn how to co-regulate. In the context of that secure attachment, then we get to see the benefits of co-regulation become self-regulation and self-discipline that sets them up for success in life.
So then, how can we be that safe, nurturing adult our child needs without our reactions getting in the way?
Establishing Secure Attachment
Trust Begins Within The Parent.
We need to be aware of our ability to trust that our child is going to be okay. And that our current situation (or crisis) will also work out okay. We have to do some hard work and introspection, but the goal is to first be secure within ourselves that “we are enough” to parent this child.
For example, if you have a child who regularly threatens to run away, you can rest and not panic by trusting that this will work itself out okay. You can be confident that you are competent to handle what happens. Then you can empathetically offer something like this:
I’m sorry you feel like you need to run away. I would be really sad if that is what you choose. But I understand that you are afraid of all your big feelings right now. When you are ready to talk or to come back, I will be here for you. I am committed to working this out with you.
Start Crafting a New Blueprint for Relationships.
We must recognize that our child likely has come to us with a working blueprint for “no relationship” and that we are operating from a completely different sort of design. Our intentionality at repetitive, nurturing interactions will help him build a new and different way of relating – to us and to others in our home.
We should start small and load on the positive affirmations and observations of even the most minor healthy interactions and wise choices. If your new foster son is helping set the table, say, “Wow, I appreciate your helpfulness. We really value your hard work and effort to get dinner on the table together.”
The goal is to grow these positive interactions and to create a sense of security and confidence in him. That secure relationship will allow you to guide and influence the child and his choices as he continues to grow under your nurture.
Survival is Rooted in Control.
Many of our children have been conditioned – through circumstances and trauma experiences – to believe gaining and maintaining control of his life is key to his survival. We must look for ways to offer power or to share control when necessary. Seek out areas that seem to matter to him and find ways to give him choices in that area. Again, start small, maybe with things that he can most easily allow you access.
For some kids, that might be choosing a favorite dessert to be served after dinner. For other kids, that might mean allowing him to plan the whole meal. Whatever you can observe as a significant issue in his life, go for the “easy win” first, so you have somewhere to start building that secure attachment.
This course from AdoptionEd.org offers practical tools for Trauma-Informed Parenting.
Putting It All Into Practice.
So how do we put this into practice? Once you have done the hard work of preparing and educating yourself, you are ready to start practicing it. In the Creating a Family radio show, Adopting Tweens and Teens, Bryan Post offered several tips to begin implementing the day your newly adopted or foster kid comes home. You’ll notice that many of these tips originate with us as parents – and require a deeper understanding and even a change within us. That is by design, as Post pointed out that our kids look to us for how to react and respond in both enjoyable and challenging moments of life.
It’s a weighty thing to be the starting point for helping our kids find healing and secure attachment. Don’t feel as if you need to implement all of these tips today, right now. Pick one or two that you can most easily access – give yourself an “easy win,” too.
Practical Tips To Implement Today
- Look your child in the eye and say, “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to fight with you. This home is a safe place. I want a relationship with you where you feel safe, secure, and understood. I know you have no reason to trust me, but if you give me a chance, I think we can make this a safe, healthy home for you.”
- Understand that the child’s past trauma created a hypersensitivity to stress and fear. Triggering those sensitivities causes him to regress and react from that previously wired brain pathway.
- Understand the emotional age of the child and honor it – especially in moments of stress reactions and regression. Emotional age is often related to the period at which he began experiencing repeated trauma. See him as his emotional age, particularly when he is triggered. Try not to take his behavior personally.
- Practice time–ins over time-outs. When challenging behaviors occur, bring the child close and nurture the relationship over a focus on inappropriate behavior or reactions.
- Co-regulate and share control. Starting with the belief that the child’s behavior comes from out of stress and fear gives you a greater compassion for his anxiety. From that foundation, you can help him regulate and re-learn his response.
- Learn your child’s triggers. Stress and fear are often unconscious reactions. Be like a detective to learn his sensitivities and reactions to being triggered. Look for cautionary flags that are being raised and try to respond pro-actively and compassionately.
- Again, train yourself to be calm and regulated so that you can see his challenging behaviors for what they are. Our kids’ challenging behaviors come from stress and fear — so try to understand the root of the fear. This is another challenge to try not to take his reactions personally. Instead, lead the “dance” of co-regulation so he can follow you to a new response.