Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls areĀ so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

A Different Kind of School Day: How is My Engine Running?

I realize I have yet to do a blog post outlining what we’re doing in our homeschooling this school year, but we have been plugging along at it šŸ™‚ Yesterday we did something different, though, for part of our school day. I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time – months – that I needed to do a craft with my big kids that I’d seen Karyn Purvis using in one of the TBRI DVDs we’ve watched.

I mentioned in my last post that, since my weekend away in Chicago at the Refresh Conference, we’ve been seeing a good amount of dysregulation here at our house. For those not familiar with the term, I thought that Paris Goodyear-Brown gave a good definition at the conference – she defined dysregulation as “an abnormality or impairment in one’s ability to adjust, organize, or control.”

Academics are important, yes, but I was reminded in a breakout session that Cindy Lee hosted at the conference that 2 of our main goals for our children should be: (1) for them to be able to be who God created them to be; and (2) for them to reach a place of secure attachment (being comfortable in their own skin, being able to give care, being able to receive care, and being able to negotiate their needs). It really needs to be of primary importance for me to help my kids work toward those goals (and of course, work we do in moving toward those goals will also help to provide a firm foundation for academic learning!). And so, yesterday, we devoted several hours to that.

All four of my kiddos and I made “How is my Engine Running?” meters.

  • Blue is for “too slow” – when I’m feeling lethargic, tired, or sad.
  • Green is for “just right” – I feel content and calm; my state of alertness is perfect for the activity I’m doing right now.
  • Yellow is for “speeding up” – when I feel agitated or restless.
  • Red is for “too fast” – I have very big feelings, my lid is totally flipped, and my actions may feel out of control and are probably inappropriate for the situation.

We used a railroad track to demonstrate what it looks like for a train engine to be in each of these states and as a catalyst for discussing what it looks like for us to be in these states.

Then we hung up our meters in the living room in a place in which they would be easily accessible to us throughout our days at home.

(We left a spot for Matt to hang his after he gets a chance to make one, too šŸ™‚ )Ā 

All of the kids loved running over all afternoon and adjusting their meters. The littles (2 and 4) are still picking up on the idea, but the bigs (age 7) are all over it. They are noticing when their own meters are edging off of “green” and when their siblings’ are – and when mine is beginning to creep toward yellow, as well!

Paying attention to your own emotional state is such a huge part of being able to address it and eventually to self-regulate. I’m particularly interested in helping my kids notice when they are drifting into that “yellow” area – some of my kiddos canĀ seem to go straight from green through the tiniest of tiny yellow slivers, directly to red, and that’s not ideal. Both they and I need to do a better job of noticing when they start to enter into yellow territory, and having these meters has helped us be more cognizant of that.

Karyn Purvis talked a lot about the process of child development and how babies, when they’re born, rely almost entirely on external regulation. They require assistance in meeting all of their basic needs – hunger, temperature control, cleanliness, etc. As children grow, they enter a phase of co-regulation, in which they begin to participate in the process of getting their needs met, but they still require assistance from others, generally parents. And as these children mature even more, they are increasingly able to self-regulate, to meet their own needs and calm themselves. If our kids are having trouble self-regulating, we can help them learn those skills by assisting them with co-regulating.

After we made our “How is my Engine Running” meters, we talked about some strategies for co-regulating and self-regulation. None of these are revolutionary, but they are all strategies that I need to do a better job of practicing when my kids are actually calm so that they are more willing and able to do them when they are dysregulated.

I’ve found that my children are highly resistant to taking a deep breath when they’re really upset. We all know it would help, but they’re so upset they won’t do it. Sometimes, if their lids aren’t completely flipped, if I just start breathing deeply, their bodies will follow, almost unconsciously – but that’s not an entirely frequent occurrence šŸ™‚ But this week something serendipitous happened. Miranda asked if we could buy flowers at Aldi, and they weren’t very expensive, so I said that she could pick out a bouquet of roses. And now? Now when someone is having a hard time, I say, “Would you like to smell my flowers with me?” And the child invariably says yes! Deep breath in; deep breath out. “Smell another flower!” Deep breath in; deep breath out. And…calm.

We also read some of this book.

We talked about what mindfulness is (the book defines it in an accessible-for-kids way as “paying attention to everything right now or as it happens”).Ā And we practiced some of its exercises. We practiced doing the Sharkfin. We practiced mindful breathing. We practiced mindful noticing our feelings. And we practiced doing a body scan.

(Some of us had a bit more of a handle on the recommended posture for the body scan than others!)

We’re working on building our capacities for paying attention to ourselves, our feelings, and our bodies. And we’re working on developing more strategies for helping ourselves get to that “just right” state in which we’d so often like to live.

It was a good day. I’m glad we took the time to make this initial investment of time in growing in these areas, and we’ll continue to nurture these skills as we move forward!

Note: For more information about the ideas behind the “How is my Engine Running?” concepts, feel free to check out this basic info from The Alert Program and/or this information from The Zones of Regulation.Ā 

Preparing for Attachment and Bonding (and How You Can Help)

The process of adoption is intense – the home study, the paperwork, the money, the travel, and the attention to detail through it all. It can be easy to see the travel to complete your child’s adoption as the finish line, the point at which you will have accomplished what you set out to do. Then the process is over, and you can celebrate! The celebration is, of course, real and deserved – a child who was without a family is now a beloved son or daughter. However, that is not the true finish line but rather the starting point for theĀ real process – parenting, living life together, loving this child.

Matt and I have been thoughtful, these recent days and weeks, about what that will mean and what our next few months will look like. A lot of the specifics are still to be determined, depending on how her adjustment seems to be going in the first few days and weeks. But what we do know is that we’ll need to be showing FangFang that we are her forever family – that we will consistently be here to love her, to care for her, and to meet her needs.

There’s a lot about FangFang’s past that we don’t know – and even what we do know isĀ herĀ story, not ours, and it’s for her to share when and with whom she chooses. However, I do feel comfortable in laying out the implications of the obvious. This precious little girl, before she turned 3 years old, had lived in 3 different environments. Before she reaches 3.5, she’ll be in her 4th.Ā Imagine with me for a moment what that would feel like – how it would affect your sense of security and your ability to trust – to live in 3 different places in less than 3 years, and not just 3 different places, but with 3 entirely different sets of caregivers. Imagine what it would be like if you were a child, and not only was this happening to you, but you had little to no understanding of what was occurring. You didn’t have the language to comprehend it, even if someone tried to explain it, and certainly no one asked your opinion about any of it.

That’s not the way God designed life to work. What’s supposed to happen is that a baby is surrounded from birth by familiar people, whose voices she has heard while in the womb. The baby expresses a need, and those people meet her need, and her relationship with them deepens. She learns to recognize and express her needs, and she learns that her needs will be met – that she will be warm, well-fed, safe, and loved – and she learns that these people are the ones who will take care of her.

But we live in a broken world, and that’s not the way FangFang’s life began. Because of that, we’re going to be parenting her a little differently than we would parent a biological child. We need to build these parent-child relationships from scratch. We need to show her that Matt and I are the people she can count on to feed her, keep her warm, love her, and care for her – and that we’re different from everyone else she’ll encounter. Doing that with a 3-year-old is a little bit more complex than doing it with a newborn baby, but we’ve been reviewing and will be using some tried and true attachment-building strategies that adoptive parents have been putting into practice for years. We’ll be working on developing eye contact (sometimes using stickers and funny games). WeĀ plan to treat her as younger than her chronological age, and we’ll hold and carry her as much as she’ll allow. We’ll offer a lot of healthy snacks and allow her to grow in her security with us through seeing our consistent provision of food. We’ll be band-aid parents. We’ll do mirroring play. We’ll cocoon – keeping her world small for a time (the length of which has yet to be determined) to enable her to get to know us and focus on building relationships with us without the distractions of other people and activities.

And as we do that, we also ask for your support and help. We need to give her the opportunity to learn what family really is and to learn to trust Matt and me specifically. And we’re not starting from a blank slate – we’re coming into her life at a time when she has learned, through experience, that caregivers leave, that the people she trusts today may be gone tomorrow. In that context, Matt and I need to be, for a time, the only people who meet her needs. To that end, we ask that you would refrain from offering her food, comfort, or affection.Ā Please feel free to wave or smile at her and to interact with us as we are holding her, but please stay away from things like picking her up or giving her hugs or kisses, even if she seems to be initiating that contact. We plan to keep her close by, but if you see herĀ seeking food, comfort, or affection elsewhere, please re-direct her toward us instead of offering to meet those needs yourself. A simple, “Oh, it looks like you’re hungry! Let’s find your mama,” would be so helpful. In time, after we have established the foundational family relationships, we are excited for all of you to get to know her as you know our other kids and to surround her with the same love with which you surround them. We just need to allow her to form bonds with us as her parents before she branches out into those other relationships, and it would be a tremendous blessing to us if you would support us in this process.

And if you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to let us know at any time – we always welcome questions and conversation!