In the second part of this two-part series, co-hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber continue the conversation with Adoptive mom and director of family programs of Chosen, Staci Thomas, on practicing spiritual disciplines—like self-care featured in Part One. But when a new child enters a family, it can be hard to acclimate, and parents must practice a whole new spiritual discipline—connecting with your children. Gain valuable advice on how to connect and then correct. Learn how building a bond of trust between parents and their foster or adopted child, gives parents room to correct behaviors later.

You won’t want to miss either part of this two-part series!

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Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way and now your hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.

Tera Melber: Welcome back to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. You know Lynette, when a new child enters our family we’re often concerned about how to acclimate them. So we think will they feel loved, accepted, safe, so in the context of this new and fragile relationship we’re asking ourselves questions about their past and “What are we going to do if they misbehave?” I mean that’s what I was worried about.

Lynette Ezell: Right. How do you go to the store?

Tera Melber: They pitch a fit. What am I supposed to do with that? And often times parents have unrealistic expectations about how quickly children are going to embrace the new set of family rules or the new normal for their lives and this expectation can often lead to power struggle which leads to frustration. So we have to ask ourselves, “How are we to connect with our children? Or correct our children while still forming a bond with them?” Because what we want to avoid is that their misbehaving because they are in a new environment and we are trying to get them to behave and so the connection doesn’t occur because we are too worried about connecting.

Lynette Ezell: Right absolutely and I know in our home some of the other children felt like, “Well you’re treating them differently.” You know? So you got all that going on. Well in lieu of these questions, in light of this, we want to welcome back Staci Thomas.

Staci Thomas: Hey.

Lynette Ezell: Thanks for coming back.

Staci Thomas: Nice to be here.

Lynette Ezell: Staci, just as a reminder, is the Director of Family Programs for Chosen and she’s been on staff there for five years. I bet that’s flown by.

Staci Thomas: It has absolutely.

Lynette Ezell: Staci, we love your passion for helping parents create homes in which their foster children and adopted children can heal and they can thrive and they can grow they can settle, right?

Lynette Ezell: Staci is a certified trust based relational intervention practitioner. As well as a trauma competent caregiver affiliate trainer and Staci you’ve got 18 years under your belt right?

Staci Thomas: I do.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, you’ve personally mentored hundreds of foster families and adoptive families for a long time and we are so excited to have you back today.

Staci Thomas: Thanks, I’m really glad to be here.

Lynette Ezell: So Staci how do we, when we bring home children from hard places, their gonna have challenging behaviors. What’s your best advice for beginning to correct those behaviors or to engage those behaviors?

Staci Thomas: Sure. So the first piece of advice I want to give parents is to not think of those behaviors as bad behaviors. Don’t think of the children as just making your life difficult. There’s really always meaning behind the behavior as Karyn Purvis so brilliantly always taught. So, the first thing to do is to think through what could the meaning behind this behavior be? But overall we are not going to be able to correct these challenging behaviors until we’ve connected. So, the number one thing is, you have to connect first and once you do that it’s easier to correct.

Lynette Ezell: So when you say trusting to build a bond of trust there? Is that …

Staci Thomas: Sure, so when kids from hard places come into our home the part of their brain, and parents will say, “What I don’t need to know about their brain.” But actually you do.

Lynette Ezell: You do. It helps so much.

Staci Thomas: Yeah, as a foster and adoptive parent you’ve got to have some basic understanding of the brain and really smart people have done some amazing research and work over the past 20 years that have really helped us understand how the brain works. So when kids have had trauma, abuse, neglect, and most of all no attachment to a healthy loving care giver, the part of their brain that is mostly developed is the lower part. And the lower part is what’s always ready to go. And so if we can connect with our children it kind of calms that lower part down and it gives kids access to the upper part of the brain which is where logic, reasoning, our consciousness lives. It all lives up there in that upper part of the brain but kids don’t have access to it unless the lower part is calmed down. And the way we calm the lower part down is by connecting.

Tera Melber: That’s really good. We just were listening to a gal the other day and she was talking about our own behaviors so when we feel dysregulated, things are out of control it seems at our house when we bring new little ones in, or teenagers or whatever, how we’re responding sometimes is unlike what we would typically respond and that mirrors in a child form how their behaving. So if we can look at ourselves and say, “Well, I’m responding in a way that I don’t typically respond, why would I expect that this child whose had everything in their entire life flipped upside down and then don’t even have the pathways in their brain to be able to go from lower primitive brain to the upper logical, critical thinking brain.” Why would we expect any different from that? So we have these expectations that though we can’t always control or keep ourselves from making poor decisions and how we react, why would we expect any differently from our children?

Staci Thomas: Exactly, yeah absolutely.

Lynette Ezell: And here’s what would happen at my house. So when that would happen I would just buckle down like okay you’re going to lose some more privileges, we’re going to tighten the rein. That didn’t work just FYI. Why didn’t it?

Staci Thomas: Well, traditional parenting techniques simply do not work with kids who have had complex developmental trauma and the reason is let’s take your privilege example to talk through this. For a child to understand well, if I do such and such behavior I’m going to get this privilege. Where does that thinking live in the child’s brain?

Tera Melber: Right.

Staci Thomas: In the upper part. And that’s the part that they just don’t have access to right now. The reason they don’t have access to it is because it’s a survival technique to live in that lower brain. Their trying to control their circumstances and protect themselves. So they don’t care about a privilege or a consequence. It’s just not going to work.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, so they kind of stay like a toddler right?

Staci Thomas: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I mean a lot of the behaviors we see in older kids who’ve have had trauma look very toddler like. And as parents I think it’s okay to embrace that and kind of lower our expectations until we’ve connected and attached to these kiddos.

Tera Melber: I think we often have to remember that the research shows that say you brought a ten year old into your home, that many times they are half that developmental age so five years old maybe emotionally or how they can relate. So if you look at that 10-year-old body and think that they are reacting like a five year old might react that does at least give you some idea. “How would I then help a five year old through this?”

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, that’s a great point.

Staci Thomas: Yeah, I love to encourage parents to do a developmental checklist that is broken down by ages. So that they can see okay we are on track in this area of the child’s development and so maybe physically their on track, that’s great. We want children on track physically. Emotionally, socially they may be less than what they typically should be. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be like that forever. It doesn’t mean their abnormal. It just means their delayed in that area. So we love to help parents think through that and that helps us to reset our expectations so that their not the same as our friends or peer’s kids who have not had trauma or if we have biological kids in the house. We can have different expectations for those children.

Lynette Ezell: Can you see improvement in that area? Do you practice that or coach that along? How do you see that improve?

Staci Thomas: Oh absolutely, so kids who have had abuse, neglect, any kind of trauma, they don’t have a secure attachment style themselves. So there are four attachment styles, and we want everybody to be secure. Well if a child from trauma is trying to attach to a parent who doesn’t have a secure attachment style themselves, nobody is ever going to attach to each other in the home. So, amazingly enough, the studies show that only about 55 – 60% of the population of adults actually has a secure attachment style. So there’s a good chance that a parent caring for a child from trauma is not going to have a secure attachment style. So we love to have parents really do the adult attachment interview. There’s a free online one that parents can do. And they can look at themselves and see okay this is the style that I use to attach to people and if it’s not secure they can make changes in their parenting so they connect better. And when that happens there is tremendous improvement.

Tera Melber: We just did a podcast not too long ago about adoption disruptions and when the statics are 10-25% of adoptions that are disrupted, it’s staggering, but I think if you feel empowered to be able to see differences and have a plan of action that you can think there’s hope. There’s a long view of this. You have to look at the long view. We had a house in Kentucky that sat up against this big farm and I used to sit at the kitchen table and think I love this long view but in the summer when the trees were growing in it was gone. And I think we feel that way, we feel very short sided sometimes like why is this ten year old acting like a five year and we get frustrated and then we may attachment style differences so we feel scared. It really comes out of just fear. How is this going to look in ten years? You’re trying to put the next 10 or 20 years into today.

Lynette Ezell: And you just can’t do that.

Tera Melber: And you can’t. So being empowered learning these principles. Being self-aware enough to know your attachment style and your child’s and some practical principles to put into place to be able to connect so that when you do have to correct the child receives it.

Staci Thomas: Absolutely, yeah and when we are operating out of a place of fear as a parent, we are operating out of our lower brain too. And sometimes it’s really good to sit back and think okay, I’m working out of the place that I shouldn’t be working out of right now and that really helps with connection which then helps with correction.

Lynette Ezell: I love what you said Staci, “That we as adults, need to step back and take a breath and assess ourselves and just be honest. “You know Paul did that he said, “When I’m weak Lord you’re so strong and I’m weak. What I don’t want to do I do and what I should do I don’t.” And that’s a great point and so we really want to add that in our show notes on how adults can do that.

Staci Thomas: Yeah absolutely, I’m such a fan of that adult attachment interview. I’ve seen it make a tremendous difference in homes when parents say, “You know what, I don’t have a secure attachment style because of my past history and so I’m going to make these changes.” And it really, really helps a lot.

Tera Melber: And it doesn’t even necessarily just help with parenting your children from hard places, knowing what your attachment is strengthens your marriage, which in a sense is the covering for your entire family so as you strengthen your marriage and have that security there it trickles down in a sense to your children and gives you kind of more, it brings so much more awareness to yourself and your home and to how things can play out in a better way.

Lynette Ezell: It’s such an example of bringing children into your home, broken people bringing in broken people right? Is such an example of the gospel but it’s also how we are totally dependent upon Christ to bring us to healing. I love what Karyn Purvis used to always say and we’ve used it so many times, “You cannot take a child to a place of healing, right, until you’ve been there yourself.”

Staci Thomas: That’s right and children from hard places they have been hurt in the context of relationships so we need to help them heal in a context of relationship and the way we do that is to interrupt that cycle of lack of attachment. It’s crucial that at as parents we know what our styles are so that we can attach to our kiddos.

Lynette Ezell: So when a child is reacting, just quickly reacting from the lower brain, maybe just talk us through a Monday morning. What does that look like in the home, how do you, as mom not lose your temper or-

Tera Melber: Flip your lid.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, flip your lid.

Staci Thomas: So these are these great TBRI principles that TCU teaches so brilliantly and Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross were so great about sharing with the world. So they talk about the levels of correction and again we are not going to be able to correct kids unless we’ve connected. So you always want to be asking yourself, “How am I doing with connection?” But even when we do that kids are going to do things that are challenging, so, the first step that Karyn Purvis always taught was playful engagement.

Staci Thomas: A playful tone of voice, a high five, a fist bump all of those kinds of things are absolutely going to diffuse that lower brain in a kiddo. So one of my favorite stories kind of gives a great example how we do a level two correction, which is with choices, and it uses a playful engagement as well. We worked with a family who had a little eight year old that just had a meltdown every time he needed to take a shower. Just was making life miserable for these poor parents and so what we came up with is okay you’ve got two choices you can get a piggy back ride to the shower or you can race me to the shower and they did that every single night and the melt downs stopped. So that sounds really easy and it’s not always that easy but playfulness is extremely effective.

Lynette Ezell: Oh, I agree totally.

Tera Melber: Because children are expecting when they misbehave typically in a non-trusting relationship with an adult that the adult is going to lose it and be angry and give the angry eyes and the angry voice and that makes them more fearful. So when you diffuse that with playful engagement it often startles them enough to be … I can remember telling my kids if they were screaming, “Oh my stars, you are hurting my ears. Are my ears falling off my head right now?” The kids would be like, “What?” It stops the screaming long enough to see if my ear is actually falling off my head.

Staci Thomas: Yeah, exactly and the thing I love about playful engagement is it works with all ages. It will work with a three year old as well as it will work with a 17 year old.

Tera Melber: That’s right.

Lynette Ezell: Absolutely, my daughter called me up the other day and I had her children for the day, ones a toddler, he’s quite active, and she said, “Mom, did you teach him that camels spit?” And I said, “Uh oh yeah we were playing farm animals, and dinosaurs and race cars for hours and I was running out of material.” But that was the way, now do I care about Hot Wheels still and plastic dinosaurs? No, but that’s how I am able to connect with him and then lunch goes better and nap time, when I say, Hey it’s time for nap. Let’s take a dinosaur with us.” Things go much better than when I start laying down the law.

Tera Melber: Or the dinosaur is really sleepy but let’s go tuck him in.

Staci Thomas: Yeah, exactly.

Tera Melber: Yes, those things are super helpful. Well what do you say to parents who think that if you’re concerned about connecting before correcting that you’re just being permissive? And that you’ve got to bring, because you know you’re going to hear that from your peers or your parents. That they need more structure and discipline. So how do you respond to that?

Staci Thomas: So, it’s by far the most common comment that I get. From the parents that we work with at Chosen. My response is always a playful one of, “How’s it working for ya?” As it’s not, it’s not working that’s why you’ve come to us. It doesn’t work to think that more discipline is going to fix this behavior, so if you can lean on your faith and your spouse your friends to say I can be strong enough to not worry about what everybody else is thinking and parent this way that has been proven over and over and over again to work with kids who have a traumatic brain injury, which is what our kiddos all have. 100% of kids who have been in foster care or adoption have had some level of complex developmental trauma. So do not, I tell parents get that thought out of your head and try it this way. I promise you, I promise you it will work.

Tera Melber: If you can give it any amount of time to just see are these principals going to work, they always work. And it does take time and you do have to do them over and over and over again. So one of the practical tips that you gave were choices. So when you said that about choices. Can you explain that a little bit more?

Staci Thomas: Yeah, so Karyn Purvis and Dr. Cross, teach us that a level two correction is with choices so with choices the key is you want the choices to be kind of favorable to both child and parent. So in my shower example the parent was getting the shower but the kid was getting some fun on the way and it just diffused his lack of wanting to do it. A lot of times it takes practice to figure out what these choices are, choices work really well with again, all ages of kids, it’s not just effective with little ones. It’s super effective with older ones. The reason why choices are so effective is that children feel like they are in control but you’re giving them boundaries for them to make the decision.

Staci Thomas: So when the lower brain is really hyper aroused like it is in these kids, they want to feel like they are in control so when you give the choices they feel like, “Oh, okay, I’m in charge of this particular situation I can make this choice.” Now, parents will say to me all the time, “Well what if they don’t like the two choices?” And so then Karyn Purvis would teach that she would say, “Are you asking for a compromise?” And you can teach little kids the word compromise and you just teach them what that means. The reason that’s a beautiful part of helping a child heal, is that when their asking for a compromise they are using their voice that has been silenced for so long.

Tera Melber: And you’re building new pathways in their brain. Where they are beginning to have to start critically thinking so if I don’t like those two choices, what would be an option that mom or dad would agree with?

Staci Thomas: Right and I always tell parents if it is a reasonable compromise you give it to them-

Lynette Ezell: Go for it.

Staci Thomas: And parents are typically shocked that I would say that because I think parents get so scared that if they give a little bit the child is going to take advantage and I just encourage people all the time, try it, try it this way because the other way is not working and it’s not going to work.

Tera Melber: But the deal is if the child has a compromise that’s reasonable and you give it the only way you can give is if you are the one that had the power to begin with. It’s not as if you are relinquishing all power to your child, you’re saying I’m the one whose got the wisdom here so that was a reasonable compromise. Absolutely, you can do that, that will be fine. So, it’s not as if you are relinquishing all of your power and saying the child can just get what they want.

Staci Thomas: That’s right exactly.

Tera Melber: Those are good things.

Lynette Ezell: And it does open up a whole new world of them as you begin see maturity begin to come together and the upstairs brain. And the Lord is still working on my upstairs brain, I mean-

Tera Melber: Oh girl. For sure.

Staci Thomas: Mine too.

Lynette Ezell: We’re treat sized. He’s so gracious and kind and so patient.

Staci Thomas: Well and I love how the Lord has made our brains to be plastic. They’re meant to heal and so parents I just tell them all the time. God made our brains to be fixed and when you are correcting, if you do it in a connecting way, that brain you can just know that it is being healed. Those neurons are reconnecting as you’re connecting.

Tera Melber: Praise the Lord for that. And as you start things like compromises or those types of things when your children are small, if you have the ability to raise them from the time that they are little, even now with our teenagers I can say, “This is the situation. What two choices do you think would be good ones?” And helping them then move from mom or dad making two options to saying, “What do you think would be good options and let’s talk through what would those options would be.” And it just helps them grow even more. But Lynette you’re so right, The Lord is so patient and so kind. Every time I mess up he doesn’t bring the hammer down. If he did I would have been a smashed bug on the road a long time ago.

Lynette Ezell: I would not be here, I would not be here.

Tera Melber: And so we have to take our ques from our heavenly father who loves and adores us and desires us to be whole and restored. That’s how we should parent with grace filled eyes but still knowing that boundaries have to be set.

Lynette Ezell: Right and the goal is that they launch, right? I’m launching my fourth one this fall, I’ll have two left at home but I want him to launch well. I’m not there to make those decisions. We have come a long way in the seven years that we’ve had him but if you’re not practicing those things at home they don’t leave with the tools.

Tera Melber: Right.

Staci Thomas: Right, exactly.

Tera Melber: Always practicing outside the moment that another TBRI principal for you there. So practicing so that we can launch the kids well. Well Staci, I know that we’ve talked about a lot of resources, we’ll put those all on the show notes. Everything from the adult attachment interview to Chosen’s website, to TBRI Principles and Jayne Schooler’s book. So there’s so many things that we can learn and we can grow as parents and as human beings and it will help our relationships with our marriages and with our family. So we really appreciate your time and we are grateful for your knowledge that you would share with us today.

Staci Thomas: Thanks for having me.

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