Last night, I told my daughter that I had taken a parenting class that day. She was quiet for a moment, which is understandable, given that both she and her brother are adults living responsibly on their own. I laughed and said, “No, I have no plans to foster or adopt, nor am I pregnant.” I explained that the class was designed specifically for parenting children who have suffered trauma, which is pretty much every family I work with in juvenile court. Often, parents are required to take a parenting class, and I had heard this was a good one. I wanted to attend myself, so I could speak knowledgeably about it to the parents I represent, and also so I would know what I was recommending.
There is another parenting program that is often recommended called Love & Logic. However, yesterday’s presenter said that while that’s a great class, it works best for families where there is already a trusting relationship, without trauma. That’s not typically our families. Trauma affected brains look—and respond—differently from healthy brains, as you might imagine.
The Integrative Parenting class I took yesterday is interesting, though, because despite its focus on kids who have suffered trauma, its attendees are not limited to DHS/Court-involved parents. Certainly, biological parents take it, but so do foster parents (whose own bio children may respond very differently than their foster kids), adoptive parents, and others who are caring for children in their homes. The class yesterday was made up of a mix of these “parents.”
But what struck me was the difference between how these parents all thought and behaved. There were bio parents there who were sincerely trying to learn how to better parent their kids. And there were a few who were trying to be present and learn, but their own trauma was getting in the way, especially given that it was an all-day workshop. Regardless of which camp the bio parents fell into, their responses to some of the scenarios made it abundantly clear that they had likely not been parented well. We know that this kind of family trauma is generational, but their answers yesterday stood out in stark relief to the responses by the foster and adoptive parents.
For example, one of the hypotheticals had to do with a child who tripped another child in the home. One of the bio moms said her response would be something like, “What the hell is the matter with you?!” She obviously knew that the behaviorwas wrong (though some of our bio parents might not have even gotten that far, considering it “funny”), but her response just fed into the feelings-side of the trauma. The correct answer started with, “It seems like you’re angry. What’s going on?” Keep in mind, these are responses for trauma-affected kid behavior. Those responses start with acknowledging and identifying the feeling before getting to the behavior.
Another parent was trying to figure out how to help her child stop swearing but confessed that she and her husband have a “potty mouth.” I see this all the time in my families. Although bio parents rarely say this, it’s clear that they operate under the philosophy of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Most healthy parents know that doesn’t work, even though we all fall into that trap sometimes. It’s really, really important to model the positive behavior we want to see in our kids (and Lord knows I did not always do thatwell!). It’s important to be consistent with the behavior we are demonstrating as parents and what we are expecting from our kids.
Another parent talked about taking away cell phones as a punishment. This one is trickier for a lot of reasons (not the least of which is the fact, as one foster parent pointed out, that kids can get cellphones from their friends, if you take theirs away. With all the cloud-based software, it often doesn’t matter which device they’re using). How and when to do that can be challenging, but the biggest concern for me is that parents don’t seem to think they have the authorityto take away the phones, and they don’t have the technical skills to know how to monitor or limit the apps their kids are using.
The other thing that occurred to me while I was in the class was that generally speaking, the foster and adoptive parents were better educated. Education does not automatically mean that people are better parents. In my own, very large, extended family, I was the first to go to college, but many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were or are exceptionally good parents. But in this class, there was discussion about various parts of the brain and how it worked in healthy kids versus trauma-affected kids. There were acronyms (e.g., ACEs, BHIS, EMDR). And let’s face it; parenting trauma-affected kids is significantly more complex. Court-involved parents may not have had exposure to these concepts or the background education that would make it easier to grasp new, more complex ideas quickly.
If you have a college degree, you may not know what ACEs, BHIS or EMDR are, but if I told you that ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, you can probably figure out what some of those things are, especially if I tell you it’s primarily about experiences kids have that lead to DHS involvement. If I tell you that BHIS stands for Behavioral Health Intervention Services, you probably have an idea of what that might look like. And if I tell you that EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and that it is an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress, you may not know how it works exactly, but you might be able to at least have a general idea of its usefulness in this area of work. But many of our parents may not be able to figure that out. Not because they aren’t “smart,” but because they don’t have the same background of foundational knowledge or experience that you do.
While I thought that the opportunity for foster/adoptive parents to offer ideas to bio parents was good, it was also odd that a non-bio parent was offering a bio parent advice on parenting the bio parent’s child. We all like to think that we both know our kids best and know what’s best for them.
I recently read a Facebook post by a woman who has a passion for this area of work, though it shows up in her volunteer work, not her career. She started out saying she was in “righteous indignation” over a bio parent’s visit. She brought junk food instead of healthy snacks, forgot diapers, and yelled at her kids when they, well, behaved like kids (a/k/a “misbehaving”). The next day, still stewing in her “righteous indignation,” the volunteer went and sat with a group of women in prison and listened to them speak of their experiences. One woman’s raw acknowledgment cut her to the core. She said, “the hardest thing I ever had to do was watch another woman (a foster parent) parent my child better than me.”
Those of us who are good (if not perfect) parents know how it feels to compare ourselves to the “perfect,” stereotypical soccer mom; think how much harder it is for parents who reallystruggle with parenting to watch those moms—or even watch us.
There is, of course, a difference between getting “tips” about how to manage certain things about kids and having someone actually parent our kids better. Yet, some of the things the parents at this workshop needed help with were things that seemed pretty basic. But again—they may not have had good role models themselves, which is where we really learn how to be a parent.
I’m wondering if perhaps it would be valuable to have a separate class for biological parents struggling to parent trauma-affected kids. So many of them feel a deep sense of shame similar to the woman in prison. They also shut down in classes like this, because they feel “less than” the foster parents and adoptive parents. While modeling and mentoring are important, in a setting like this, it can be intimidating. It may make parents feel like even more of a failure, because all these other parents seem to know so much more and be so much better parents. And it’s hard to learn anything from that mindset.
One final note.
I overheard one of the bio moms say (after the class) that this was a hard class to do all in one day. It was overwhelming because of the emotions it dredged up. I had noticed at one point that she was doodling on her calendar. But I don’t think she was bored or feeling like the class was pointless. I think she was overwhelmed. She was sitting in a class hearing about all the ways she should be parenting, and probably comparing them to how she was parenting. She was probably wondering how badly she had “damaged” this child she loves (but just doesn’t really know how to parent). And with her own trauma, it probably spiraled into more feelings of “I’m a terrible parent. I will never get it right. I’m never going to be good enough.” And unsurprisingly, she shut down.
I wonder if it might be helpful to make this a five-week class (there are five lessons), with opportunities to practice that week’s lesson with a mentor?
But even if that is a great idea, the age-old question arises; how would we pay for that?
While many things can cause trauma to a child, the ones we will focus on here are the ones outlined in the Adverse Childhood Experiences assessment; they are typically traumas that the child suffers because of the actions of a parent.