We often hear folks say that the TBRI model of attachment parenting is permissive and sets parents up to run child-centered homes. Nothing could be further from the truth! The IDEAL response is a perfect example of how TBRI offers tools to maintain connection when correcting your foster or adopted child’s behavior.
When parenting a child who has experienced trauma, the balance of structure and nurture is a driving force in correcting our kids. The goal of trauma-informed attachment parenting is to maintain the vital connections of trust, safety, and confidence in our care for our foster or adopted children while obtaining the change we know they need to make in their behaviors.
Confidence in Our Own Authority
The IDEAL response is an acronym to help parents understand how to effectively leverage their authority in ways that produce changes in behavior. Of course, that means that first, we need to be comfortable with our parental power – owning it safely and securely so that our child’s defiance or opposition does not threaten us.
That might mean some self-work to identify triggers or wounded areas from our family of origin that need healing. It’s pretty hard to lead a child to heal when we are the walking wounded, too. We also need to figure out what it means to be a good leader – one that our kids want to follow.
Breaking Down the IDEAL response
No matter how small or low level the misbehavior is, respond to it immediately. The goal is to “catch it low” and quickly. You cannot give in to the temptation to walk on eggshells around small infractions or disrespectful sighs and eye rolls to avoid a big melt-down or tantrum.
If you catch the lower-level behaviors quickly, you can maintain a light-hearted tone as a preventative response. Ideally, it would help if you tried to respond within 2-3 seconds of misbehavior. Then you can keep on truckin’ through your day. When your foster or adopted child is very young or new to your home, you will have to keep them close to you as much as possible to catch their behaviors that quickly. Repetitively noticing these behaviors as soon as they happen re-wires the child’s brain for trust and regulation.
When misbehavior occurs, go to the child and get down to or below his eye-level. Approach him with a soft touch, warm eyes, and gentle words. Maintaining this connection maximizes his brain’s ability to coordinate both sides for understanding and regulation.
Be mindful of his trauma history in those moments. If eye contact or physical closeness feels threatening to him, respect his need for space while still gently aiming your words at his behavior. You can even ask permission to touch him or hold his hand before you begin speaking to reinforce that you respect his space.
Suppose you are working with a foster child who is brand new to your home. Respecting his space while offering him a soft response and gentle re-direct establishes a connection. You can maintain that connection to establish boundaries and safety even if he prefers that you not touch him.
Measure your response to your child’s behavior with the minimum intervention required. You can think of it as a “less is more” goal. Aim for a firmness level in your tone or words that will be just enough to change course and keep the train moving.
You don’t want one single correction to derail hours of your day. Be very matter of fact, try to catch it low, and respond efficiently. Guard yourself against getting dragged into a prolonged discussion. If you use too many words when your child is melting down, you short-circuit her ability to re-regulate with you.
The goal of correcting our children is to essentially re-wire their brains to make better choices about behavior next time. Try to start with a simple, light-hearted re-direction to maintain your connection. If that doesn’t work, offer an opportunity to re-do the action, followed by plenty of praise and a quick return to the day. It might even connect more with your child if you walk through the steps of a re-do together.
You can have some fun with it while reinforcing the change you wish to see. Our foster and adopted kids quite frequently react badly to criticism or correction. Coming in light-hearted first keeps your response “connectable” for your child. Treat the re-directs and re-dos as opportunities to build trust, then focus on instruction, practice, and successful change. Communicate that you believe she can and will get it right!
Keep your response to your child focused on his behavior, not who he is. Talk to him about the choice he made, don’t dwell on why he made it. If you keep reminding him how often he makes the same bad choices, you will only layer shame and guilt on his shoulders. Chastising him about the progress he should be making is also shaming. Choose your words carefully, being mindful of your comments or attitudes that might trigger a dysregulated child.
Aim your response to the degree to which the child is struggling. When you aim your level of response to your child’s emotional state (or even a little bit below it), it will feel much safer for him. Don’t over-react, especially if it’s clear that the child is unaware of the seriousness of his misbehavior. It’s a balance, though, because under-reacting might leave the child feeling alone with his big feelings.
Similarly, please don’t physically leave the child alone with his feelings or to regulate himself. A leveled response requires you to hang in there with him. You will help him regulate so you can return together to lighter, more playful levels of engagement.
It might help to think of yourself as a detective – learn his cues and observe his typical reactions. Then practice how you want to maintain connection and respond consistently. Maybe even talk through or role-play the response process with your spouse or partner to help you improve your skills.
Remember Your Goal
When we are confident in our authority and leadership, we can implement the IDEAL response – before misbehavior or challenging attitudes manifest. We build a healthy attachment cycle and behavior change in moments of big feelings and bad choices. We don’t have to get tripped up by taking our child’s behaviors personally because we have a matter-of-fact way to maintain connection when correcting them without causing more trauma.
Our goal is to raise our adopted or foster kids to become kind, responsible, attached young adults. Maintaining connection when we correct them will equip them to handle the hard stuff of life as they grow and heal.