The artist, James Turrell, is a resident of Arizona. Somewhere just northeast of me here in Flagstaff, he is turning an ancient cinder cone, Roden Crater, into a new, immersive art experience. I can’t wait to see it. At the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) his piece, Knight Rise, is ready for you and the kids. It’s a large room with an opening to the sky. If you show up at dusk, you’ll be treated to watching the walls of the room change color! Nuff said…Another of his pieces, Mohl ip, is installed in the Katz great hall of the Phoenix Art Museum. I visit it every time I’m there because it’s different every time. It even changes while I’m looking at it!
What in the world does this have to do with parenting kids from hard places?! Well, because that huge, 10’ by 20’, art object at the museum changes imperceptibly. Try as I might, I am unable to see the change. Turrell has somehow programmed neon and argon gas valves and the electricity necessary to make those gases glow in infinitesimal increments. Look away, and the changes are there; stay focused and the changes are not seen.
Living with children with histories of chronic trauma due to abuse, neglect, or intrauterine chaos, is your gift to the child and the world. You come to this lifework from a myriad of different experiences of your own. Some of you do this out of a moral obligation or faith imperative, some out of the blessings of material wealth, others from your childhood experience of adoption or foster care. Many families bring some mix of these to the task. Still others seek life with a large family or companionship for an only child while others hold out hope for an end to their loneliness by bringing a child into their life. Knowing what we know about life with a child with a history of chronic trauma, it is important to explore how to view the fruits of this profound labor, because these children are not easy, and their healing can take an EXCEPTIONALLY long time.
Intellectually, we know these children will need our help to grow but how to nurture that growth and how to recognize that change is happening is where it gets tricky. We may have raised biological children into successful adults or may have even sent a child out into the world only to watch the world take its toll in the way of addiction. This is often the scenario for grandparents who find themselves raising their grandchildren. In either case, we call on what we have learned about parenting from our own parents, from our study of parenting strategies that improve on how we were raised, or even some mix of these two. Unfortunately, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that those strategies, however easy or hard to come by, might not work at all with children from chronic trauma. Their brains are just very different from that child whose early life was trauma-free.
At some level, you are going to have to figure out what the child needs from you by trial and error. How are you going to know what works? Here we are back to those small increments of change that are so important but so hard to see up close. I’m going to offer you a few tips!
Keep a journal of every placement. This is an example though not detailed enough for some children:
|Bedtime/Sleep||Sleeps well||Nightmares||Night Terrors||Likes:☐a story
☐a back rub ☐a toy
☐ a nightlight
|Sleeps on floor||NOTES|
|Meals||Eats well||Hoards/hides||Refuses:||Likes:||Uses hands to eat|
|Toileting||Independent||Poor hygiene||Withholds||Wet at night||Resists help|
|Tooth Care||Independent||Needs reminder|
|Dressing||Independent||Sleeps in clothes||Hides dirty clothes||Has favorite clothes||Tears clothes|
|Communication||Honeymoon||Can repeat instructions||Asks for help||Loud/Mumbles||Talks constantly|
|Coping||Honeymoon||Asks for things||Melt
|Tantrums||Damages property||Hurts self|
|Self-Regulation||Honeymoon||Allows direction||*Video games||Hides||*Rocks||*Pounds/punches|
|Gross Motor||On target||Falls||Fatigues||Climbs||Constant motion|
|Fine Motor||On target||Writes clearly||Buttons||Ties||Fidgets Constantly||Starts zips|
|Connection methods to whom?||Mails art /notes||Phone contact||Supervised visits||Unsupervised visits||Wants/has NO contact|
|Culture/ethnicity||Speaks another language||Has holidays other than those you celebrate||Looks different than you||Hair care is a learning curve for you|
By using a checklist/journal entry it will be easier to see even small progress over time. You may even want to time meltdowns or tantrums (sensory overwhelm v anger or disappointment) so you can track how much more quickly children are recovering (but keep it simple!). Also note any efforts you make to restore regulation so you can see what tends to work. Note that lots of fun activities have the added value of acting as rhythmic regulators! Encourage these, don’t restrict these punitively, please; they are valuable tools.
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Our Friday night Happy Hour and Tuesday afternoon Coffee Chat continue. Some find me and a single other participant; others find a conversation among 4 to 6 people. The topics range from the silly to what hobbies have us in their grip to what life has thrown in our path. If you ever find yourself wanting a bit of grown-up conversation, consider joining us (check your email for the unchanging link).
- Parent Mentor Partners: AZAFAP has trained volunteer parents as mentors who are ready to help support foster, kinship, and adoptive parents through one-to-one conversations. Interested? Fill out the form at https://www.azafap.org/family-support-services/
- The Caring for Caregivers project provides counseling sessions for those who do not have insurance to cover counseling services. Find the information and link at https://www.azafap.org/family-support-services/
- I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://www.neurosequential.com.
Thanks for listening. Maintain yourself so you can be there reliably for others.