This content was originally published by Creating a Family, the national infertility education and support nonprofit.
Foster and adopted children who have experienced trauma quite often need our help to learn resilience in the face of current and future life experiences. Heather Forkey, MD of the Foster Children Evaluation Services (FaCES) and the Child Protection Program at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Children’s Medical Center in Worcester, has done some extensive research on the impacts of trauma and resiliency skills in children.
We’ve all heard of the B.R.A.T. diet for addressing a child and stomach distress – bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. It’s an age-old cure to soothe the upset and help their tummies recover. It’s just as crucial to have tools that will help us to heal our children’s hearts and brains from the complex challenges through which they have lived and which they will face as they grow. Dr. Forkey created an easy-to-remember, accessible device to help address our children’s emotional distress. Now, during the season of uncertainty and pandemic crisis, it is a great time to consider practicing the Three Rs.
the three rs of building resilience
When a child experiences a traumatic event, he will need your intervention to find his footing again. For many of our foster and adopted kids, everyday occurrences that happen in our homes can trigger previous anxieties or traumas of which you were not aware. You don’t have to delve into the earlier experience if you see trauma behaviors emerging. Instead, you can take the distressing event and use it to help him find healing.
These 3 Rs will help you build resilience in him, for this event and future challenges:
In the moment of distress – or as quickly as you can get to him – comfort your child with both words and your physical presence. Take this time to be soft and gentle to raise the level of nurture that you are expressing. Reassure him that he is safe, that you are with him, that you are available, and that he is loved. Take your time with this step, as it’s foundational and pivotal to his ability to move forward.
Return to Routine
So often, when a distressing event occurs, we are tempted to suspend our typical structure. However, many children who have a trauma history feel soothed by a predictable schedule. Returning to a familiar routine once your child is reassured and on his way to being calmed will reinforce the sense of felt-safety you are seeking to bolster. A structured environment also reduces anxiety for a child who is stressed.
Many children cannot regulate themselves when they’ve just endured a traumatic experience. Dr. Forkey says,
Ultimately, regulating is about being able to identify your emotions and then modulate them, and that can start with giving kids the words for what is going on.
When your child is in distress, you can start the path to regulation by practicing deep calming breathing together. Co-regulating is a unique tool that allows the child’s triggered senses just to follow you. Regulating together takes some weight from her shoulders to “pull herself together.” She is instead free to rely upon you to lead the way. Many of our children need to learn these coping skills, both at the moment and when returning to regulation following the distress.
Other tips you can try to teach regulation – once the traumatic moment is over – include:
- Name the feelings of overwhelm – Use a tool like these Feelings Flashcards to get comfortable identifying her feelings.
- Role-play various emotions – Practice expressing the feelings and how to manage them, using these 3 Rs.
- Take turns playing “What If” – Create silly versions of scenarios with which she has previously struggled.
- Journal together – Write a story or a question to her and pass the journal to her for a response.
- Maximize teachable moments – When you catch a movie scene reminiscent of an issue your child has faced, talk about how the character handled it. Ask your child what he would do. Brainstorm together about the pros and cons of the different ways to cope and so on.
put the 3 rs on repeat
Building resilience in our kids is a multi-layered process that, in part, requires consistency from us. Our ability to be consistent comes from managing our own ability to regulate. Then we can be ready to meet our child’s needs. Being mindful of the things that happen during the day that can dysregulate us is critical.
One helpful way to work on our regulation is to narrate the experience for our kids. They are always watching anyway, so go ahead and maximize it:
- When an appointment is a no-show with no explanation, say, “I feel very disrespected when someone doesn’t show up for an appointment. I feel angry when my time is not valued.”
- Follow up on the naming of your feelings with a plan for how you are going to handle yourself. “Well, I guess this means I have an hour to sit and read that book I’ve been trying to get to all week. What would you like to do with your extra hour today?”
As your foster or adopted child grows more confident in his ability to “bounce back” from distressing moments, you may be tempted to set the 3 Rs on a back burner. Instead, press in a bit when you see your child successfully managing those traumatic events. Apply the 3 Rs from the “Hey! I caught you doing GREAT!” kind of perspective. Positive reinforcement and the surprise of being called out for success are a fabulous impetus to keep building his resilience.
building resilience together
Many kids have a natural tendency toward resilience, while others do not yet possess that skill. Once your foster or adopted child feels safe, nurtured, and regulated, you can enjoy witnessing their expressions of resilience. Building resiliency in a child who has experienced trauma is one of the essential tasks of parenthood. Growing this life skill together can be a bonding experience that will buffer your relationship for the future.
**If you are interested in learning more about building resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, we highly recommend our recent show, Using This Time of Shutdown to Develop Resiliency in Our Kids and Family. It’s full of practical tools you can begin implementing today!
Originally published 20/05/2020 by Tracy Whitney on Creating a Family.