Parenting has led me to continually ask Dustin, “Does this all just feel like a crap-shoot? Like we’re just making it up as we go?”
His normal response. “Yes.”
Mine. “Ok. Good. At least I’m not alone.”
And while parenting is just so much trial by fire, along the way in the last two and a half years, we’ve found a couple (of the hundreds of approaches we’ve tried) that have had some results in shaping behavior.
One of the recommended ways to deal with kids who have experienced trauma is to use a technique we like to call “try again”.
It’s basically a way to stay connected with kids while helping them learn the expectations of the home. Instead of following misbehavior with an immediate consequence, it gives the child a chance to correct the behavior immediately, doing it over in a way that is acceptable. It’s a beautiful technique that has proved to be incredibly beneficial to us.
“Try again with gentle hands.” “Try again with kind words.”
When our daughter demands we read a book rather than asking if we would read a book, we prompt her with,
“Try again with asking words”.
“Will you read me a book, please?”
Riiight. Because parenting is simple. Ha!
Let’s take it up a notch. Perhaps you have a child who likes to run down the church hallway while adults carry their non-lidded, piping-hot coffee to the sanctuary.
If “use walking feet” is the instruction for the church hallway, and she runs, we (hopefully) calmly say, “Come back and try again with walking feet”. If she runs again, we give her the prompt again, and let her try again. Two to three times usually does the trick on that one. It’s a little tedious, but it teaches and hopefully prevents her from being scalded by a hot cup of joe.
For benign scenarios like walking in a hallway or asking to read a book, this has proven to be a simple, somewhat easy way of shaping behavior.
The difficult parts come when the scenarios have more emotion involved.
For instance, when one of our girls uses her hands in a mean way, either hitting or grabbing from the other, we would love to be able to use this technique every time. We see it’s effectiveness. It diffuses the situation. It gives grace. It teaches.
But it’s so hard when our own emotions are triggered by the particulars. It feels easier to just raise our voices, separate them, and take away the toy they are fighting over so we gain a little peace and quiet. (I use this example, but it’s actually a rare one in our home.) Our girls tend to get along remarkably well. The patience of our 7-year-old is astounding at times. She’s a gift to our family and a sweet sister.
Anyway, here’s a situation that we deal with multiple times a day, every single day. Let’s say my daughter is being sassy and talking back to me instead of doing what I’ve asked her to do. It feels easier to just say “No! You will not talk to me like that. Leave the table.” I want to lay down the law. I want her to obey. I want her to remember I’m in charge and that she isn’t allowed to talk like that.
And that may all be true. I do want her to learn to listen to instructions. I want her to choose kind words even when she doesn’t feel like doing what someone in authority has asked her to do. And I definitely want her to understand that her actions have consequences.
But this whole “try again” way of parenting requires me to dig a little deeper. Parenting with this connection in mind requires me to remember that she is another human being with emotions that are far more complex than she’s capable of expressing with words.
And this way of parenting requires that I recognize my own emotions that are in the game as well. I’m feeling frustrated and disrespected. I’m sometimes feeling hopeless, like everything I’m doing isn’t helping her learn to make better choices. So, I can either demonstrate what it looks like to deal with big emotions calmly, or I can give in to my natural way of behaving and freak out. She’s going to be soaking in whichever one I put on display.
And let me be clear, I fail at this daily. I react more often than I respond. I lose my cool and let my desire to control usurp my deepest desire for connection. The worst parts of me can bubble right to the surface when the little people I am raising don’t just do what I ask them to do.
But sometimes, on good days, I dig deep. I hear her sassy words and the tone that triggers, and I breathe first, just one good deep breath. I remind myself that she is little and I am big. I reach into my parenting arsenal (which seems to be small and ever-changing) and pull out “try again”, prompting her to live up to the expectations that we have, giving her a chance to practice in an environment that is safe and forgiving.
“Try again with kind words.”
It doesn’t change the fact that we expect her to be respectful and to listen to directions. I think we actually have really high expectations in our home (which is probably not surprising). So, if “try again” doesn’t work after a chance or two, we head to the “thinking chair” and make space for her to calm down and think things through.
The “thinking chair” is an alternative to time-out in which we sit with her instead of asking her to go. This also takes time. I have to stop eating dinner to go sit with the daughter who just triggered some emotions in me. And if I’m not in a really good place, I don’t actually feel like doing that.
But most days, and especially in the first couple of years, we sit together. Silently.
I don’t immediately start asking questions or bring up ways she could have done things better. She’s already shown me that she needs some space to breathe, and I could often use that space as well.
So sometimes, we breathe together. “Smell the roses.” “Blow out the candles.” In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Reset.
Dustin and I know from all of our training and reading that it’s better (if possible) to keep the connection rather than cutting it off, especially with kids who’ve experienced abuse and neglect. They’ve already been separated from family, and these kids often don’t understand that they did nothing wrong. The turmoil in their lives has nothing to do with them. And yet, for little minds, who are just learning to piece the world together, cause and effect aren’t always clear. If things fell apart before, what’s stopping it from happening again? Can adults be trusted to stick with them?
So, it’s our goal to help rewrite that story of family. As authentically as possible, while honoring their parents’ efforts in whatever way we can, we attempt to cultivate something different.
In our home, family means staying. Family means talking through the pain. Family means trust. Family means love, no matter what.
The Jesus Storybook Bible says God loves his children with a “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”
We’re aiming for our home to reflect that beautiful love.
By the way. We’re not super smart, as I’m sure you may have guessed. We found all of this wonderful information and so much more (that we haven’t put into practice as much as we’d like) from the book The Connected Child and the Empowered to Connect Conference. The late Dr. Karin Purvis was a phenomenal practitioner of Trust-Based Relational Intervention and her work with kids from hard places is absolutely wonderful. I cannot imagine a book being more impactful in the life of a foster parent.