Parents in crisis can’t parent therapeutically – so stop expecting us to.

My teenaged son called this evening to explain that he’d cursed his teacher out and thrown his desk across the classroom. He was upset because he’d lost his school issued Chrome book because he’d taken it home (not allowed, and not his first time) and had pornography on it. I listened patiently without judgement. He explained how his elopement from school ended in an entanglement in a pricker bush and contact with a concrete culvert which scratched up his arms and legs. He was covered with bloody scratches and scrapes. I expressed empathy as I sipped my coffee. I offered encouragement when he said he was going to try to earn back the Chromebook and even said I’d talk to the school to ask for a clear plan to work towards that goal. I told him I was proud of this choice to make tomorrow a new day.

Today I was a therapeutic parent superstar and here’s why:

Had this situation happened when my son was still living at home, I would have gone nuts. I would have been throwing out consequences and yelling. My anxiety would have been through the roof. I would have been angry, embarrassed, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

Back when my son was living at home, our family was in crisis. The situation had grown toxic. It took several years of his being in treatment programs, and my being in therapy and educating myself, to begin to find a positive way forward.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Adoptive and foster parents aren’t prepared for the early childhood trauma most kids coming into our families have experienced. We usually reach a crisis point before we learn about therapeutic parenting. By that time, we’ve become desperate and demoralized. Our mental and physical health is so degraded that we are barely surviving. Our kids are out of control. Our life is out of control. We can’t even manage to brush our hair in the morning much less use a calm and kind voice after our child spits in our face.

No doubt, our children need us to be that calm and steady, therapeutic parent, but at that point, we simply don’t have the capacity to do it. And given the our current relationship with our kids, it’s likely we aren’t even the best person to do it. Though few dare tell the shameful truth – we likely have come to a point where we really don’t like our kid. It’s a struggle to be nice to them. It’s difficult to not feel adversarial towards them. If we’re really being honest, some days we’re as out of control as our kids.

Unfortunately, few therapists understand this. They usually underestimate our child’s extreme behaviors and the level of crisis our family is in. They assume we have the ability to parent therapeutically and shame us if we don’t. For our families to heal and thrive, this is something that must be recognized and addressed.

The only clinician I know who is talking about this and teaching other clinicians about this is Forrest Lien of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. (If you are a parent, please follow him on social media to support his efforts on our behalf.)

Families in crisis do not have the capacity to parent therapeutically. This is why we must:

1) Get help to families before they are in crisis (this means pre-adoption training and post-adoption support),

2) Support parents and families in a holistic way. Help us get to a place where we can parent therapeutically.

3) Surround families who are in crisis with supports. Stop shaming us for being broken and demoralized. Give us a hand up.

Parents must be healthy and educated to parent therapeutically.


A note about therapeutic parenting:

There are no perfect treatments for developmental trauma. My son hasn’t been able to access the highly specialized treatment he needs. My response to his phone call today doesn’t solve the problem – I realize that. However, consequences, though perhaps “deserved” won’t work, and will only further escalate my son. What I must do is choose the response that is most likely to move the ball forward. My goal is for him to remain in school and to not get kicked out of the group home. My goal is to de-escalate the situation. I highly recommend A to Z Therapeutic Parenting for practical information on therapeutic parenting.

The ugly truth about trauma

Warning: Graphic image

Because trauma from early childhood neglect and abuse is invisible to the untrained eye, we tend to imagine our children having only bruised and bleeding hearts.

In reality, some of our children have huge gaping trauma wounds. The gash is infected and oozing puss. It smells. It’s sticky and messy. No vital organ or system in our child’s body is safe from its insidious spread. As a result, our children can’t sleep or eat. They can’t learn. They don’t play nicely with others. Sometimes they spend days – years – delirious with fever and pain.

I’m sorry if this is disturbing, but that’s the point I’m making about trauma.

Our kids don’t know how to treat their own trauma gashes, but they’re afraid to let us help. They want us to just leave it alone and let it get better by itself. But trauma gashes, left to their own, can become life threatening or leave a mangled, ugly scar.

As parents we try to treat our child’s oozing trauma gash with bandaids, ice packs, and Neosporin. Afraid and in paid, they lash out at us like wounded animals no matter how lovingly we soothe and comfort. We explain the pain is only momentary, that we’re just trying to help the wound heal, but they fight to keep us far away.

Most trauma gashes need stitches or surgery. Our kids need highly specialized treatment that, more often than not, is unaffordable or inaccessible. And so, as parents, we just do the best we can with our inadequate home first aid kit.

Bruised and broken hearts can be comforted. And even trauma gashes can heal and fade with proper treatment and time, but they always leave a scar.

Learn more here:

Understanding the impact of childhood trauma
Raising a child with developmental trauma

Joker: A warning we should heed

At my teenaged kids’ insistence, I took them to watch Joker in the theater, expecting a typical action-packed, comic book movie – not a genre I typically enjoy. Instead, I sat in the darkness, stunned to near-tears by it’s devastating portrayal of how early childhood trauma and untreated mental illness can spiral into tragedy. 

The poignant film explores the backstory of comic book villain Joker: a man named Arthur Fleck who has a disturbing past and a troubling present. It is a compelling and nuanced portrayal of untreated trauma and mental illness. 

Joker is incredibly violent and disturbing, certainly earning its R-rating, but at the same time reflects a reality we are already seeing in our society today. Early childhood trauma is at epidemic levels. Our mental health system is in disarray. We aren’t meeting the needs of the vulnerable around us and sometimes violence and tragedy are the price we pay as a society. 

There’s a huge amount of controversy swirling around the film and it’s portrayal of mental illness. After watching the movie, I believe the real controversy we should be focused on is why we don’t have affordable, accessible, effective treatment for mental illness and early childhood trauma!

*** Spoilers Below ***

In the film, Joker, we meet Arthur Fleck shortly after he’s been discharged from a mental health institution. He’s receiving mediocre city mental health services, living in poverty, and attempting to build a semblance of a life for himself.

While the film does not specify all of Arthur’s diagnoses, his symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and feelings of despair, loneliness, and worthlessness. Arthur’s one obvious diagnosis, Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), fits of uncontrollable laughter, results in severe bullying. We also learn Arthur was abused and neglected by his mother during early childhood. This included severe head trauma as well as psychological and emotional abuse. Arthur has never been able to access the treatment he needs to manage his condition, much less heal, or thrive. He’s completely lacking social skills, unable to hold down a job despite his best efforts, and even with medication, unable to feel happy or optimistic.

Unfortunately, Arthur is not simply a far-fetched character. We have “Arthurs” living and breathing all around us – in our daycare centers, classrooms, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Early childhood trauma is a hidden epidemic affecting millions of people. While victims of early childhood trauma and/or people who have mental illnesses aren’t necessarily violent, the combination of untreated trauma and mental illness with psychosis can be dangerous. Furthermore, high-risk children are not receiving effective treatments in residential treatment facilities. They are aging out ill-equipped to function in the adult world and at high risk of criminal behavior and incarceration. Like Arthur, most of these individuals want to be happy. They want to have good lives. However, we, as a society, fail them by not providing effective, affordable, accessible treatments for trauma and mental illness. Like Arthur, these people struggle to navigate even the basics of life.

Arthur, though teetering like a wobbling house of cards, is trying to build a life for himself. He’s trying to find some happiness. But it’s obvious to the viewer that he simple doesn’t have the resources or skills to do so. And so begins Arthur’s devastating spiral that should be a warning for us all. 

  1. Arthur loses his services (therapy, medications, etc) due to city financial cuts.
  2. He’s fired from the job he loves – sure he made a mistake, but he’s given no mercy or compassion.
  3. He follows his dream to be a comedian, and falls flat. He’s mocked mercilessly.
  4. He’s physically assaulted for laughing (his Pseudobulbar Affect) and in self-defense shoots and kills two men on a train. In a panic, he kills another.
  5. He’s cruelly rejected by the man he believes to be his birth father.
  6. He learns his mother abused him as a child and anger that has been festering in his unconscious for decades surfaces.

The spiral tightens. Arthur is drawn to the rioters who praise him as a vigilante for the killing on the train (which was in fact, self-defense). He becomes more violent and murders several people. In his mind, his path has become inevitable as all other doors – all other options – have slammed closed in his face. 

Does this not reflect the crumbling path of so many young people in our society today? People who struggle on the edge of society: to hold down a jobs, to form relationships, to find their next meal, or place to sleep. This instability is the fate of so many people who have experienced early childhood trauma and/or are mentally ill because they are unable to access effective treatment and services. Is it any wonder that they are hopeless, desperate, and caught in a downward spiral? Is it any surprise that some end up engaging in criminal behavior? That some act out violently?

Towards the end of the movie, Arthur has fully transformed into the Joker. Wearing chalky make-up and a sardonic smile, he sits on a talk show stage and casually confesses to the train murders, Before shooting the talk show host point-blank in the face, Joker says, “I’ve got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned me.” And we can’t disagree: He has got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned him.

It only takes thumbing through the headlines to know that far too many of our most vulnerable have been abandoned by society and with nothing to lose have picked up guns and lashed out violently too. Read more about one recent incident here. This will continue until we prioritize affordable, accessible, effective treatment for early childhood trauma and mental illness.

NOTE: In case it wasn’t clear in this post, I am not saying that mental illness or childhood trauma lead to violent behaviors. What I am saying is that untreated mental illness and untreated childhood trauma can put people on a dangerous spiral.

Conduct Disorder (CD) – Early detection

First published by Milk & Hugs, and republished with permission.

The Worry…

Early childhood is a wondrous time of life, for both children and parents. Watching young minds form and bodies grow is one of the true joys of parenthood. As parents, we want the best for our children. We have dreams of who they will become, the type of life they may have. Ultimately, we want the best life for our children. What happens when our child is ill or has some sort of problem? We want to fix it. We are proactive and determined to find the solution.  But what happens when our child is still very young and our concerns sound vague (and perhaps a bit ridiculous) even to ourselves? How do we respond to the pediatrician who gives us that patronizing smile while telling us the child is just being a child, we are worrying over nothing, the child will “grow out of it.”

The first thing to know is to always trust your instincts, whether your child is 2 minutes or 20 years old. Instincts have served us well from the beginning of time and will continue to do so. It doesn’t matter if the child in question is your first or your fifth, trust your instincts.

What is normal?

Some things children will grow out of as they develop and mature. Toddlers are very self-centered and their demands on our time and attention are unlimited. Eventually toddlers grow into more reasonable beings as they learn how to express themselves. They learn it is much more fun to play with another child and share toys than to hoard all of the toys for themselves. They learn that hot stoves burn and that burns hurt. They learn that “no” actually has meaning and isn’t just a weird sound mom or dad makes all day.  

Between the ages of birth to four or five, a lot is going on developmentally. While that is wonderful, it can be a confusing time for parents. What is “normal” childhood behavior and what should be of concern? How do we bring it to the attention of others without sounding paranoid? Hopefully, this article will provide a few answers for parents of young children who are dealing with some behaviors that are the cause of concern.

…but is it really normal?

We’ve all heard the horror stories surrounding “the terrible twos.” This phase of your child’s life can actually span anywhere from a year old to as much as 30 months old. Tantrums can occur for numerous reasons and may include whining, crying, screaming, hitting, kicking, biting, and throwing things. A study published in 2003 suggests that nearly 75% of tantrums last five minutes or less. Most children under the age of five have one to three tantrums a day with varying degrees of severity. How do we know when to be concerned?

Donna Christiano’s recent Healthline article mentions these indicators as reasons for concern:

  • tantrums that consistently (more than half the time) include hitting, kicking, biting, or other forms of physical violence toward the parent or caretaker
  • tantrums in which the child tries to injure themselves
  • frequent tantrums, defined as tantrums that occur 10 to 20 times a day
  • tantrums that last longer than 25 minutes, on average
  • an inability of the child to ultimately calm themselves

Children with these behaviors may have conduct disorder. Learn more about Conduct disorder here.

When other parents talk about Conduct Disorder

In addition, parents from an online Conduct Disorder support group have described the tantrums more as “rages” due to the level of anger and violence the child displays. One mother states that her 3 year old daughter will scream, hit walls, hit other people, bite, kick, and destroy whatever she can get into her hands, for hours on end.

Parents in this same support group have provided a list of other behaviors they noted in their young children which were causes for alarm:

  • deliberately cruel to people or animals
  • early sexual aggression (age 2 and above)
  • manipulative (age 3 and above)
  • flat affect
  • superficial charm (age 4 and above)
  • inability to relate actions to the consequences that follow, such as time out
  • discipline causes further rage in the child, has no effect on behavior

What can you do?

What can you do if your child exhibits some of these more extreme behaviors? The first thing is to document the behaviors in a notebook or journal that is used exclusively for this purpose. Note the behavior, total elapsed time of the behavior (if a tantrum/rage, state the total time from beginning until the child is calm), date and time of the event. Also document your actions/responses.

Try to remove emotion and extra information from the list. It’s difficult to notice these specifics under stress but at least make note of the time, you can document the rest later. You are gathering documentation that will be much needed further down the road. At the beginning of the notebook, write down when these behaviors first began (age or date if you remember). Most of the time it has been so gradual that you cannot put an exact date to the first unsettling event but you can likely pinpoint an approximate age. Physicians like to see six to eight weeks of data. This can be difficult to do if your child is having 10 – 20 tantrums/rages per day. Do the best you can while remembering that documentation is your friend.

The Doctor Visit

After you have several weeks of information, take your child to his or her pediatrician. In a calm and confident manner, state what behaviors are of most concern to you. Have a list prepared and bring your notebook with you. Be concise and do not use vague language; no sort of, kind of, maybe, like, etc. Always speak with authority with regard to your child’s behaviors. Speaking in this manner shows that you are not an insecure parent who just needs a little patronizing from your child’s pediatrician.

Remaining calm indicates that you’re not some hysterical parent in over his or her head. Knowledge and a confident attitude are part of your tools to utilize in order to obtain an appropriate response from your child’s doctor. If you do not receive the assistance you need or feel that your concerns have been brushed aside, ask for a second opinion. Keep looking for answers and help until you find it.


What is Conduct Disorder?

I stand in the bathroom stall of the courthouse, texting a friend. “I can’t do this,” I write and lean my head against the cold partition of the stall.

“You’ve got this,” she replies. “Breathe, Honey.”

I hear the restroom door open and a singsong voice I recognize as my daughter, Debbie, quietly calls my name. I quickly pull my feet up, trying to be invisible. “I know you’re in here, you stupid bitch. Come out, come out, where ever you are.”

My breath halts and my pulse pounds in my ears. Be still, be quiet, I think. Maybe she will go away.

Footsteps approach as door after door of the stalls bang open. I quake in fear as the steps come nearer until I see her shoes in front of my door. 

“You can’t hide forever,” Deb says in a lilting, singsong voice. She quickly tells me how plans to murder me and what she will do with my body before setting it and my home on fire. She reminds me that she has had months to perfect her plan, while in juvenile detention, without my interference. 

I don’t respond.

Tiring of her game, Deb’s voice acquires the hard edge I’ve come to associate with rage. “Get out here, you bitch. I hate you. I want to see you scream as you die. Your precious boy will die, you will all die.” I cower behind the door as her diatribe continues; the words increasingly vulgar.

Suddenly the door into the hall opens and a new voice speaks. “Deb, are you in here?”

I hear Deb whisper, “Shit.” Then she begins to sob. 

“Baby, what’s wrong? What happened?” I recognize the newcomer as Deb’s caseworker.

Still sobbing, Deb says, “I saw Mommy come in here. I just wanted a hug. She hates me.” She wails and sobs as though her world has just ended. “Why doesn’t she love me, Miss C?” 

Debbie is only 14. Debbie has Conduct Disorder.

What is Conduct Disorder?

The DSM-5 (the manual used by mental health professionals to make diagnoses) defines Conduct Disorder (CD) as “a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated.”

Children with Conduct Disorder (CD) may exhibit behaviors such as:

  • bullying, threatening, or intimidating others
  • initiates physical or verbal altercations
  • physically or verbally cruel to others
  • physically cruel to animals
  • steals
  • forces someone into sexual activity or is sexually aggressive
  • frequently lies
  • deliberately sets fires or destroys property
  • lack of empathy
  • lack of remorse
  • grandiose thinking
  • highly manipulative
  • rages (or “tantrums”) lasting 25 minutes or more
  • inability to learn from mistakes
  • lacks critical thinking skills/has difficulties understanding abstracts
  • shallow affect
  • superficial charm/has a public and private demeanor
  • lack of fear

Recent scientific studies indicate CD is in part due to abnormal brain activity, as well as an under development of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is known to be responsible for controlling aggression as well as the perception of emotions. The prefrontal cortex handles executive functions such as controlling short-sighted or reflexive behaviors in order to plan long-term goals, make informed decisions, and exhibit self-control.

But what does all of this really mean?

In simple terms it means that the child with Conduct Disorder has a brain that is structurally different from that of a neuro-typical child. Because of this difference, the child with CD does not respond to rules, discipline, and societal norms the way a typical child does.

Conduct Disorder is evidenced by some, or all, of the behaviors listed above. The spectrum of behaviors is wide and varies between mild to severe. The tendency to lie, manipulate, and gaslight are strong and seemingly innate behaviors.

Standard parenting techniques are not effective. Discipline, rewards for good behavior, star charts, and other techniques fall short of managing behaviors long- term. Conduct Disorder transcends race, ethnicity, environment, location, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Unlike attachment disorders CD is not always due to trauma, abuse, or neglect. However, many children diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) at younger ages are ultimately diagnosed with CD as teenagers. CD can manifest at 2 years old or 15 years old, and any age in between.

There are an estimated 7 million children in the U.S. alone with Conduct Disorder. This translates into approximately 1 in 10 children affected.

For families affected by CD, it can mean very little in terms of treatment. Children with Conduct Disorder do not respond well to traditional talk therapy. In general, these children will use the counselor to further manipulate caregivers. Some go so far as to employ triangulation, in which the counselor becomes the unwitting accomplice of the child to further demoralize caregivers. Medication cannot relieve the symptoms of CD but it may be prescribed for co-morbid diagnoses such as ADHD.

At present there are very few viable inpatient treatment centers for children with Conduct Disorder. Many programs state that CD is treated at their facility, however most apply standard practices toward the treatment of other mental illnesses to CD. This is highly inappropriate and may lead to further issues for both the child and family living with CD.

Often, families feel vilified and become isolated due to the harsh judgment they face. Family and friends lack understanding of what is happening and drift away, unable to provide support for something they seldom witness. Parents beg doctors and mental health professionals for help, only to be mocked and treated with derision. The community, hearing of the child’s disrespect and abusive nature when the police are called, make assumptions about the parents: too lenient, too strict, not enough activities, too many activities, set boundaries, spank him/her, it’s all because of poor parenting, they say. All this does it further isolate families who are living in a constant war zone, created by someone they love and for whom they are legally responsible. Love does not cure Conduct Disorder (CD), nor does being a model family.

If there are no treatment options available, what can be done?

Fortunately, CD is being researched more in recent years. Unfortunately for those living with CD, viable treatment options are still years in the making. The founders of Compass for Conduct Disorder realized the need for community support programs, resources for parents/caregivers, and early childhood detection and intervention.

Compass for Conduct Disorder is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide resources, services, and hope for those living with CD. In addition to a parent/caregiver support group, Compass also provides an information and awareness group, parent advocacy, crisis buddies, the Compass Peer Network for professionals to exchange information relating to CD, and an awareness raising campaign. In the planning stages is the Compass Child and Family Support Center, which will be geared toward children ages 2 to 5 showing early signs of Conduct Disorder, and their families.

If you have a child with Conduct Disorder, Compass for Conduct Disorder is a place to find support, resources, and community.

Website: www.compassforcd.org
Facebook: @CompassforCD
Twitter: @CompassforCD
Compass Cares: A Conduct Disorder Support Community
Compass for CD Information and Awareness


Karen Huff is the mother of four children, one of whom has Conduct Disorder.

She is the President for Compass for Conduct Disorder and an admin for the Compass Cares support group, as well as for the Compass for CD Information and Awareness group. 

Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


Yoga at school may help your child, but what about mine?

Recently I’ve seen several headlines about schools who are introducing yoga as a way to address student behaviors. The West Fargo Pioneer explains this way:

Behavior issues stem from a multitude of reasons. However, studies show that students today are more likely to experience trauma and have mental health needs, increasing the likelihood of classroom disruptions and behavioral issues. 

In a classroom of 20, one or two students on average will be dealing with serious psycho-social stressors relating to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or a psychiatric disorder, according to the Child Mind Institute.

This type of stress can shorten periods of brain development and limit brain growth in early years, making it harder for students to regulate emotions and concentrate on learning. 

And while schools can’t control students’ experiences outside the classroom, they can help students learn how to cope with stress and regulate emotional outbursts. Social-emotional curriculum aims to help students recognize and deal with emotions and tackle the increased presence of stress and trauma.

It’s absolutely true that every classroom has children who have experienced trauma. Early childhood trauma is an epidemic. It’s absolutely true that these experiences affect a student’s ability to learn and cope in school. It’s also absolutely true that some students will benefit from yoga. It will help by,

  • Reducing stress
  • Improving concentration
  • Increasing self-esteem
  • And more…

This is why PBS suggests Managing School Stress by Bringing Yoga Into the Classroom. And Education Week applauds Ditching Detention for Yoga: Schools Embrace Mindfulness to Curb Discipline Problems.

Great ideas, however news articles like these give the impression that yoga is an inexpensive, quick fix for childhood trauma. For kids on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum, this simply isn’t the case.

Here’s the problem

Many kids with developmental trauma are so dysregulated they cannot follow instructions or calm themselves enough to even choose to participate in yoga. A 10-year-old who flips desks, curses at the teacher, and fights with other kids is likely not able to safely or effectively participate in yoga.

Furthermore, kids who have extreme behaviors and emotions may be extremely disruptive during yoga activities. This can cause other students to be unable to focus and benefit from the exercises. A 6-year-old who refuses to follow instructions, pesters other kids, and runs around in circles, will disrupt the entire atmosphere.

If a child has a cold, a spoonful of honey does wonders. However, that same spoonful of honey is not able to cure a child who has strep throat. Here’s the ugly truth about trauma: Some kids who have experienced trauma have needs far beyond what a spoonful of honey can heal. Without comprehensive and specialized treatments, these children are unlikely to benefit from yoga at school. They probably won’t even be able to successfully participate.

I cringe at the “yoga in school” headlines because they minimize the devastating, often debilitating, effects of trauma on our kids. Most people who read the articles, or just skim the headlines, will assume childhood trauma is easily treated.

Don’t get me wrong – I applaud schools incorporating yoga into their curriculum and behavior programs because it can be helpful to so many children. However, yoga cannot curb extreme behaviors caused developmental trauma. It is a far more complicated and challenging issue.

Let’s get our kids to a healthy place where they can benefit from yoga. You can help by learning how trauma effects kids and sharing our video to help raise awareness for the need for accessible, affordable, and effective treatments.

Here’s what “trauma informed” looks like…

Due to startling research on the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on children, there is emphasis on “trauma informed care” in many sectors – education, childcare, health care, justice, and more. Far too often, however, trauma informed care is little more than a buzzword. In fact, many community resources exacerbate problems for families in crisis.

Over the last few months, my family has benefited greatly from several examples of truly trauma informed care. Let’s take a look at what “trauma informed” really looks like.

Leaving class to call home

My 12-year-old son Brandon recently lost his father under traumatic circumstances. As a result, he constantly worries about my safety. I receive these types of text from him multiple times a day:

Sometimes he’s texting from a friends house, sometimes just upstairs in his bedroom. If I don’t immediately see the text and respond, he becomes panicked. This posed a serious problem with the start of school where he has to leave his cell phone in his backpack.

When I explained the situation to the school counselor she immediately put in place a practical, trauma-informed solution: Brandon’s teachers have been instructed to give him a pass to Student Services whenever he asks for one. He’s then allowed to go into the office and make a short call home to check on me. While this could be viewed as disruptive, it is no where near as disruptive as his anxiety mounting for hours until it becomes debilitating. This way he checks in – 5 minutes – and is able to go back to learning. Shout out to @nwsarts

Protecting siblings from viewing an arrest

As my kids sat eating snacks at the kitchen table, I had no idea the police were on their way to my house to arrest my 17-year-old son Devon on outstanding assault charges.

When the police arrived they pulled me aside and explained they were about to arrest Devon. Then the officer added, “Do you have a place you can take your other kids so they don’t have to see their brother arrested? We’ll wait for you to take them.” Dazed, I took Devon’s siblings next door.

Once I recovered from the shock of the arrest, I was deeply grateful to the officers. They realized the potential for secondary trauma and were proactive in preventing that. They could have just swept in and handcuffed Devon. Instead, they were trauma informed and acted in the best interest of the whole famiy. Shout out to @CMPDnews

A private place to eat

Food issues are extremely common for kids who have been abused or neglected. My adopted daughter Kayla, now a teenager, has always struggled eating in front of other people. This poses a significant problem in school as she cannot concentrate when she’s hungry. In addition, during basketball season this can become a serious health concern.

Instead of diminishing this very serious concern, my daughter’s teachers have gone out of their way to create an accommodation that is both practical and helpful – one that is truly trauma informed. Kayla is allowed to eat her lunch in one of the teacher’s classrooms. As a result, she gets the daily calories she needs to thrive in school. This has been a simple and effective way of removing a barrier to Kayla’s academic success. Shout out to @LNCharter and @corviancourier

Each of these solutions is straight-forward. Simple even. So what makes them truly trauma informed?

  1. They recognize the underlying trauma
  2. They don’t minimize the issue
  3. They are practical and effective

Families like mine need more community resources who are educated about developmental trauma and willing to implement practical, sensible, trauma informed solutions that will enable our kids grow and thrive.

5 creative ways to foster attachment

Kayla “then”

When Kayla was a newly adopted toddler I’d rub my face against her pudgy cheek as I tucked her in for the night. “Look at that,” I’d exclaim. “A freckle just jumped off my face onto yours!” She’d giggle and ask me to count her freckles.

Like most kids that come from hard places, Kayla struggles with attachment. Kids who have experienced early childhood trauma often don’t form a strong bond with a primary caregiver as an infant. As a result, they may unconsciously fear the closeness of relationships and thwart attachment. They also don’t have the context of a healthy mother-child bond from which to understand other relationships. As a result they don’t naturally form healthy relationships with family, friends, romantic partners, teachers, co-workers, and others. 

Kayla “now”

Kayla is now a persnickety 16-year-old, but I sometimes still “rub freckles” onto her face, much to her fake chagrin. While attachment isn’t easy for her, our relationship is very close and a source of safety and comfort for her. One way our bond solidified was through our silly – and simple – nightly freckle ritual. Our kids needs are challenging and complex and we need to find creative ways to reach them and help them learn healthy attachment.


Every child and parent are different, but here are five creative attachment ideas that have worked for other families. 

  1. Taking mommy-and-me swimming lessons with younger children can be a great, natural way to facilitate physical contact. Over time a child will learn to feel secure in the safety of his or her parent’s arms. (Of course, take into consideration if your child is fearful of water or swimming before trying this.)
  2. Braiding hair, painting toe nails, and foot massages are another way to encourage gentle, loving physical touch. These activities can facilitate hours of easy conversation and connection. Gentle face massages can also be a calming bedtime ritual.
  3. Sharing a secret with your child is a way to connect in a special way. It doesn’t have to be anything big – a childhood memory, a favorite snack, or secret wish. Once you’ve shared your secret, your child might just want to share one of their own. Be sure to respect and cherish it.
  4. Sharing a sleeping space, a staple of attachment parenting, can be accomplished with older children by allowing them to sleep in your room or laying with them until they fall asleep. This can provide a tremendous amount of comfort to a young, traumatized child.
  5. Cooking and baking together is a tactile and practical way to spend quality bonding time with your children. For kids with food issues, this can also be a way to give them a sense of control over an area of their life that may seem erratic and unpredictable. (See below for our family’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.)

Don’t forget to reciprocate. Let your child brush your hair and paint your nails too. Accept their special gifts and secrets, no matter how trivial they may seem. Attachment is a two-way process and you must be as fully engaged as you want them to be.


As promised, here’s my family’s cakey chocolate chip cookie recipe passed down from my kids’ great-great-grandmother. Enjoy!

Tips to work with your child’s school (includes free teacher handout)

I can’t tell you how many days I’ve navigated through carline with a drink holder full of steaming hot cups of coffee. Every school year I’d learn how my kid’s teachers took their coffee. On my way to drop the kids off at school in the mornings, I’d pick up a coffee for myself and one more to go. Especially when they were in elementary school, the kids loved their teacher’s reaction to the nice, fresh cup of coffee – and I loved the good will it built. In fact, when I found a teacher to be particularly challenging to work with, I’d throw in a muffin or cookie. That’s right – kill them with kindness and generosity and 9 times out of 10 it paid off in spades.

Working with teachers and school staff can be challenging for any parent, but more so for parents of children with special needs. Parent’s of kids with Developmental Trauma and/or RAD struggle even more because of the nature of these diagnoses. Few schools are truly trauma informed and our children are often adept at triangulating adults.

I have five children and we’ve got 504s and IEPs. We’ve navigated suspensions and expulsions. We’ve been to alternative schools and been in co-taught classrooms. Below is my hard-earned advice for how to navigate the system successfully.

Behind the scenes

Like any “system” we work with as parents, it’s important to pull back the curtain and understand how that system works and recognize its dysfunctions. Many of us have become so frustrated with a teacher, school administrator, or principal that we blow our top. We feel justified because they are being so unreasonable, causing our child undue hardship, or simply aren’t acting fairly. Unfortunately, our strongly worded emails and outbursts can have long-reaching negative impacts on our child’s school experience.

  • Teachers and school staff talk. Teachers and administrators talk about students, and even more often about their “cranky,” “unreasonable,” “mean” parents. The 6th grade English teacher vents her frustration to the 6th grade history and science teachers. The 8th grade teachers give the high school teachers and administration a heads up. If you are perceived as a difficult parent to deal with – everyone knows.
  • Parents are labeled and handled. Administrators and teachers will make a determination about what kind of parent you are based on even one interaction. While this may not be fair, it’s simply the reality. They’ll often meet ahead of time to strategize how to “handle” you in meetings and conferences which can lead to the incredibly frustration realization it’s the one of you against all of them. And once you’ve been labeled – it sticks
  • You won’t win (at least in the long-term). Sometimes a “strongly worded email” or conference can seem to be effective. But it’s important to realize your child will be in school for 13 years. Winning one battle at all costs can have serious long-term impacts. Once the school labels you as a “problem parent’ they’ll strategize how to best handle you in the future. A nasty email may win the battle – it won’t win the war.

While we all wish this wasn’t true, it’s human nature. For the sake of our children, we must understand the reality and become pragmatic. At least that’s been my strategy and more often than not it’s been successful.

Start off on the right foot

It’s so important to start the new school year in good faith and without a chip on your shoulder. Instead of assuming your child’s teacher is “going to be a problem,” start out by believing they’re going to be a partner. This means seeing the classroom through their eyes and empathizing with their needs. I have several teachers in my family and know it is a hard, often thankless job. Many teachers spend weekends and evenings grading papers and pay for supplies out of their own pockets. Most go into the job because it’s their passion, but can become discouraged and burnt out .

  • Be polite and act in good faith. A little genuine kindness and please and thank you can go a long way – especially with teachers who are overworked. Look for opportunities to compliment your child’s teacher. If called for, apologize and seek to make amends.
  • Be reasonable and solution oriented. It’s so important to recognize and respect the limitations of schools and teachers. Don’t lock yourself into one solution. Be an active listener and go into every meeting with a spirit of collaboration and mutual support.
  • Be ‘that’ parent. Reach out to your teacher in practical ways. Be the parent who they can count on as volunteer. Send in extra supplies when they’re requested – and when they aren’t. For example, all teachers always need extra pencils, tissues, and hand sanitizer.

Let’s not forget that as parents we find it incredibly challenging to care for our child, especially when their behaviors are extreme. Imagine a teacher trying to do that while teaching a full classroom of children. A bit of empathy and consideration can go far.

Work within the system

Fighting the system for reforms is a noble cause and one we all must support. However, the strategy for personal success is almost always learning how to work within the system. Thankfully, there are standard, legal processes to insure your child receives the educational supports they need and are entitled to. It can be a long process to obtain a 504 or IEP (Individual Education Plan), but well worth it because they are comprehensive plans with legal requirements. There are also many free or low-cost parenting advocates who are trained to assist parents in negotiations with their schools and setting up of 504s and IEPs.

  • 504s A 504 is a detailed plan for how the school will remove learning barriers for students with disabilities. Most commonly these include accommodations (how a student learns) like extended time for testing or priority seating. A 504 is easier to get than an IEP and usually the best stepping stone to an IEP.
  • IEPs An IEP is a legal agreement for a student to receive special education services. The IEP agreement can include both accommodations (how a student learns) and modifications (what a student learns). For example, it may include pull out educational services or classes co-taught by a traditional teacher and a special education teacher. An IEP requires an evaluation. Typically diagnoses like ADHD or RAD can qualify a student.

Resources

Be sure to check out this excellent resources on the ins and outs of navigating special education services for your child. From Emotions to Advocacy

Here’s a handout you are welcome to reproduce or email to your child’s teacher: Remember, approach is everything. You don’t want to come across like a patient being wheeled into surgery while handing the surgeon a diagram of the heart. Just offer this handout to teachers and school staff as “helpful information about my child’s diagnoses,” I find it’s always best delivered with a cup of coffee!

Here’s a social media shareable:

As parents of children with special needs, we’ve all had that sick feeling when we realize teachers and school staff have circled the wagons – and it’s “us” against “them.” Use the strategies in this article to make sure you are part of the team and that everyone – teachers, school counselors, principals, and you as the parent – are linking arms and circling your child with the supports they need.

Video: Early Childhood Trauma – we need treatments now!

Learn more

Aging out of RTF and into the real world: A dangerous proposition

Raising a child with Developmental Trauma

Immigration isn’t the only “system” that’s harmful to children

Why adoption stories aren’t fairy tales

It takes a village

NEW video teaches kids about trauma and the brain

I am so excited to share this exciting new resource with you! The Brain Game is a new psycho-educational, 20-minute video, It’s designed to teach children about how trauma may have impacted their brain and what they can do about it. It was created by Family Futures, an adoption support agency based in London.

The Brain Game is designed around video game imagery and vernacular children are familiar and comfortable with. This is effective because each “level” is first played on easy mode. This sets the stage for what healthy and normal is. Then the level is replayed on hard mode and kids learn how trauma can make things more difficult for them.

Here’s the introduction to The Brain Game which will give you a good idea of the look, feel, and accessibility for children.

01: Intro

Here’s a sneak peek at the other 4 levels of The Brain Game.

02: THE WOMB
Kids learn how substance abuse, nutrition, and their parents’ stress can impact the ability of their brain to develop properly even before they are born.
03: BIRTH
Kids learn the potential impact of being sent to ICU, being born dependent on alcohol or having an inhospitable environment as an infant.
04: BRAIN BUILDER
Kids learn about the primitive, feeling, and thinking brains and how early traumas can cause “big” feelings. The also learn about fight-flight-freeze responses.
05: HOW WE CAN HELP
Kids learn that their brain is like “plastic.” It can change and grow and overcome many of their early traumas.

Why do I like The Brain Game?

  1. It reinforces the idea that children cannot control the trauma they’ve gone through.
  2. It acknowledges the unfortunate reality that kids may be stuck playing life on hard mode.
  3. It offers hope by showing how kids can help themselves change and live happier lives.

How you can use this resource

Parents – The Brain Game is a wonderful way to help children who have experienced trauma understand what’s going on with their mind and body. It’s also a valuable tool for siblings to foster an empathetic and supportive family environment.

Groups – The Brain Game can be watched with small groups of children and used for discussion. And don’t overlook it’s value for adults either. Trauma is a complicated and emotionally charged topic and many adults will learn from this video.

Therapists – The Brain Game is an excellent tool for therapists to use with children who have experienced trauma. It will be an effective discussion starter and a good way to get parents and children on the same page.

This resource is not useful for kids only!
The paradigm shift to trauma informed is a tricky one and this video can be eye opening for adults as well.

Details

Where to buy: Online via Family Futures (be sure to tell them I sent you!)
Length: 19 minutes
Format: MP4 download

1 in 5 kids who’ve spent time in foster care are LGBTQ: Valuable resources for parents

Coming out as LGBTQ can be daunting for anyone. Many people risk losing family, friends, and sometimes their jobs or community.

Imagine with me for a moment that you are coming out as LGBTQ. This is you:

You have friends, family, and a job you love. You’re involved in the community and have a positive outlook on life. If you come out, perhaps your friend Amy will begin to shun you. It’ll be hurtful for sure, but you have Sue, Fred, and other friends to hang out with. Uncle Arnie might make the holidays tense and uncomfortable, but it’s okay. You have a large family and plenty of support.

You decide it’s worth the risk. You may lose some connections in your life, but you’ll make new ones.

This isn’t always the case for LGBT young people who are in foster care or adopted.

According to a recent study more than 1 in 5 kids in the foster care system is LGBTQ. Their foster/adoptive families may or may not be accepting of their sexual identity. This can be particularly challenging for young people who are already grappling with the impacts of early childhood trauma.

Imagine with me for a moment that you are an LGBTQ adopted or foster child. This is you:

Coming out as LGTBQ may literally mean risking everything and everyone.

You’re already struggling on some level with attachment due to your background and experiences. You feel awkward, uncomfortable, and disconnected. This is only exacerbated by the fact that you’re acclimating to a new family You’re afraid of saying something wrong and always feel a bit like an outsider. You’ve left all your old friends behind and are in a new school. You aren’t even thinking about your future – you’re worried about just tomorrow.

Do you dare risk your tenuous connection with your adoptive mom? You rely on her for food, clothes, rides, and money. What if she kicks you out and you have no where to go? If this is the only connection you have, is it worth the risk?

The stakes can be sky high for our LGBT adopted and foster kids, but there is hope – you. Research has shown that with one accepting adult in their lives, LGBT youth are 40% less likely to attempt suicide. That one person can be you.

Regardless of religious or moral convictions, we all can agree that we want our children to be healthy and happy. We want them to thrive. To do this, we must keep their attachment issues in mind and, above all, focus on how to help them feel safe, loved, and cared for.

What happens when the adopted kids of anti-gay parents come out

Keri Williams, via buzzfeed

Here are some useful resources as you navigate a way forward with the best interest of your child in mind:

Remember – you may be the only connection, the only “safe person,” your adopted or foster child has. If they dare share with you about their sexual identity, they are bestowing an enormous amount of trust on you.

Read my article published by BuzzFeed on this topic: What Happens When The Adopted Kids Of Anti-Gay Parents Come Out?

Let’s help our kids reach for the stars.


Note: This illustration was adapted from the Providing Services to LGBTQ Youth: Building the Bridge Between Attachment and Healing session at ATTACh 2018.