Readers of this blog know that I care for my three-year-old grandson's three days a week. This is both a privilege and a joy. Trained as a teacher and honed by adoptive parenthood, I am also fascinated at the difference between parenting children with trauma histories and parenting this little cherub who has known only consistency, stability and love from all the adults in his life. His sense of trust has never been broken and he, therefore, views life through a lens of secure trust. He believes the world is safe and welcoming. He knows that adults are safe, reliable, supportive, encouraging, and loving. Attunement has repeatedly provided him successful "serve and return" relationship reciprocity that nurtures secure attachment.
I observe a palpable difference between his life experience and that of my own children and others who had experienced trauma, had authentic reason to be vigilant and sceptical about the world. They knew from direct experience that it could be upended suddenly, that everyone and everything familiar can disappear in a flash. They wanted to inhabit a world that was steady, safe, reliable, consistent, secure, and managed by trustworthy adults.
Trauma histories have an impact on children's worldview and influence their mental and physical health. This does not mean that children with trauma histories are doomed; They simply need parents and caretakers who understand the need for attunement, patience, presence, empathy, consistency, and therapeutic parenting. Remember, their life experience created a "blueprint that was imprinted by terror." From the very understandable logic built on their personal history, learning to trust, DARING to trust is an act of incredible bravery.
A foundational principle of GIFT Family Services' approach to parenting is Adoption-attunement. AQ incorporates a level of intentionality and understanding that significantly benefits adopted children and their families. It is a concept about which we have written frequently. Our choice of "Attunement"--with a capital "A"--reflects a deep awareness of the powerful way attunement operates in human beings. Famed neurobiologist, Dr. Dan Siegel asserts that “Attunement is not a luxury; it is a requirement of the individual to survive and thrive.” 
Dr. Steven Porges further clarifies that attunement builds a context of safety that frees people to “love without fear.” As Intentional parents we most certainly want our children to feel safe and secure enough to "love without fear",  to feel safe enough to open themselves to the joy and vulnerability of connection. My grandson demonstrates this ease in his habit of occasionally pausing in the middle of his play to spontaneously plop himself in my lap and announce, "I need a hug."
Cue the moist eyes. Obviously, I melt and hug him with joy and deep love. Every time he does this I think, Wouldn't it be wonderful if we felt confident and secure enough in all our relationships to let people know we need a moment of connection and affection? This only occurs in a context of profound trust because it exposes both one's own raw need, it makes one vulnerable to rejection and to the other person's taking advantage of their invitation to respond to our expressed need. Those who know us best, who know our trigger points and sore points, who know our fears and worries have the potential to use them against us. That is why the degree of trust for this level of intimacy is huge and rare.
How many times have you experienced the need for a hug or an empathic ear? How often did you feel secure enough to act on that need and request connection with another persona? What enabled you to muster the courage?
On the other hand, if you stifled the need, and stoically stuffed your emotional needs, what prevented you? How did this emotional shutdown feel?
How might your life change if you WERE able to reshape your relationships so attunement COULD happen? What would be the first step and how soon will you take it?
How are we building this level of trust within our families? With our partners? How are we modeling the willingness to be vulnerable as well as the careful way we respond to such overtures to connection as the sacred trust they actually represent? Trust, connection and attunement are fragile and take time to build. They are also easily damaged, so we must marshal great vigilance and commitment to attunement--especially that specialized level of adoption-attunement which understands the complexity of factors that adoption imposes on families built by adoption.
Schools have already reopened in my community which reminds me of the need for intentionality in how we guide our children through the school year. Parents and students all hope for a good year, one that filled with learning--both academic and relational--and grows their ability to be in the driver's seat of their lives. (After all, the point of parenting is to put ourselves out of a job: to raise kids that can succeed on their own.) So, how do we accomplish this vital goal? Operating purely on intuition is not enough; we need a plan--a map--that shows the route we intend to take.
To design any functional map, we must know two facts: the departure point and the destination. The shortest route would simply draw a straight line from point A to point B. But life is never that linear, that free from unexpected obstacles and delays. We must plan for contingencies, pack supplies for "emergencies", and draw out alternate routes "just in case." What landmarks (benchmarks) do we want our kids to achieve? Keep in mind that our actions make a broader impact than our words. "Do as I say, not as I do," never works. Our actions must reflect and embody our words and expectations. Make a list of possible goals.
We must exemplify whatever is on our “wish” list. This provides the model and the proof of our commitment to it. What behaviors do we wish to see? How do we encourage/reinforce these behaviors when our children demonstrate them? How are we modeling the same behaviors? How do we extinguish undesirable behaviors? Remember the distinction between discipline and consequences. The first aims to teach; the second aims to punish.
What skills do our children want to develop?
It’s important that they participate in goal defining and setting. This is an important mindset and is a skill that benefits from practice. Clarity helps to focus their choices and it strengthens their commitment and desire. We must validate and understand their goals, dreams and motivations, then discern how we can help them define, refine, and accomplish them.
What skills do we want them to develop?
Getting self up in the morning
Putting forth full effort
Learning from mistakes
Playing a sport
Being physically active
Managing tech time
Expanding their circle of friends
Showing respect for teachers
Create a work/life balance
Identifying their personal strengths as well as growth points
Seeing school as a tool that helps them accomplish their life goals
What values do we want them to embrace?
Confidence, competence, courage, resilience,
persistence, compassion, service, open-mindedness,
curiosity, conviction, self-discipline, delayed gratification,
emotional balance, joy, conscience, morality, humor,
awareness, creativity, forgiveness of others and self,
respect for self and others, truth telling and truth seeking
What habits do we want them to internalize?
Make time for self-reflection
When we demonstrate intentionality about our personal and family goals we show our children not only that planning is essential for success but also we prove it is a priority for us, it's part of our approach to goal accomplishment. It also reduces the chaos of living with a seat-of-the-pants, handling brush fires as they come. Having a life blueprint alerts us to digressions that lure us off track; we can then decide if it is a welcome diversion or a distraction we choose to avoid. It's important to note that our expectations may get “in the way” if they are not developmentally ready to achieve at the level we would like them to be. Staying “attuned” and in communication with our kids at all times is our ultimate goal. We must nurture the child before us and not expect him to be the embodiment of a "fantasy child." that exists only in our imagination.
Parenting has an evolutionary endpoint: at some point, our children will leave the family nest and fly out into the world to carve their path in life. Even as we change diapers, read bedtime stories, or tuck them in, we know someday, they'll be on their own. When that time comes we want them to be ready. How do we prepare them for this independence? Strong family values provide them with a secure foundation. They'll need confidence, competence and courage. Confidence grows from competence. Competence emerges from practice. We know directly from personal experience that these emerge only through persistence and the ability to learn through failure. We also recognize that it takes courage to learn anything new.
With this awareness in mind, we want to help our kids experience life as a learning conversation, to survive the process. They'll need to develop a strong sense of resilience. No one begins as an expert, so they must be willing to try new things and keep on trying until mastery is achieved. Encourage their persistence by setting an example. Let them see how you handle the rocky, uphill road to success. Share your strategies for coping through the hard times.
Most importantly, when they struggle or falter, be supportive. Be their cheerleader; let them know you believe in them. Be their confidante; listen to their struggles and allow them to figure out the solution. Be a resource: offer help only after they request it. (Language counts here. Ask if they want help instead of asking if they need help. "Want" reinforces their sense of agency and self-determination. "Need" reinforces their lack of sufficient capability; over time this mindset can lead to a sense of learned, chronic helplessness. Be a coach; Stay mindful of the distinction between critique and criticism and always wait for their invitation to offer your perspective.
Take note of their effort and highlight their incremental progress. Connect to your Family Values, e.g., In our family ...
We respect hard work.
We recognize success doesn't just happen; it takes effort and time.
We keep trying.
We learn through trial and error.
It's okay to ask for help.
We value teamwork and persistence.
No goal is worth sacrificing your integrity.
Of course, we hope to raise children who are happy, healthy and, successful. each family envisions a unique version of success. Keep in mind we spend most of our time pursuing a goal than in achieving them. How do we treat others and ourselves as we advance toward success? Remember to nurture their spirits. Value relationships more than being "right" or successful. Make time for joy. Long after we are gone, our words will linger in their minds; speak with compassion, respect, and love.
We're all familiar with the old saying, "Everybody is a critic." Feedback occurs regularly in life. People hand it out all the time. Often with negative results. Why? Because it is a skill that we rarely teach. As a result, feedback often results in fireworks, hurt feelings and damaged relationships. It should only be offered with permission and it should be free from any hidden agenda. This is especially true in families where we know each other's hot buttons and vulnerabilities. This inside knowledge primes us for connection; it also means we know how to cut one another to the quick with a glance, a comment or silence.
And few people have been taught the essential distinction between a critique and criticism. A critique strives to analyze and evaluate, to identify merit as well as shortcomings, to strike a balance so improvement can result. Criticism, on the other hand, seeks to find fault. It can turn into shame and strike at our core identity. Most people slip into criticism when they offer feedback. It's frequently delivered with anger or malice.
As parents, we have several chances each day to provide feedback to our spouses, partners and children. It's important that we do so with an eye to strengthening the relationship and not on cutting the other person down. Relationships are fragile. As adoptive parents, we must attune to our children. Balance our interactions with our children. Make sure that the scale tips in favor of interactions that create connection. Spend time having fun together, creating memories that last a lifetime. Provide discipline when necessary. Share the wisdom and knowledge, coaching them on how to improve, but offer it sparingly; no one likes to feel constantly judged. (Before sharing any feedback, pause. Make sure that you are delivering information that will help them improve rather than venting your own frustration or anger.)
Before we let the words fall from our mouth we must identify our motive because it will have a significant effect on our word selection and tone of voice. These factors will shape the way our family members will receive our message. Let's consider an example.
Think back to the last time you offered feedback to a family member. What was your mood? Were you "in their face" or calm? What was your true intent? How was your feedback received? How did each of you feel afterwards? Was it the result you wanted?
Now imagine a "do over." How might you improve your result?
Before you answer, let's explore some guidelines on how to frame feedback. First, it must be accurate, purposeful and empathetic. Second, identify your motive. Are you genuinely interested in helping them? Next, is the timing appropriate? Is the listener in an approachable frame of mind? Are other people present? Remember nobody enjoys having shortcomings pointed out in front of an audience. Children deserve the same privacy boundaries you would want for yourselves.
Before you dish out any feedback, set the stage for success. Choose a time when your child or spouse is like to feel receptive and open. Select a place that is conducive to having a sensitive conversation. Secure permission. Uninvited feedback is likely to be rebuffed or ignored. In fact, it's apt to trigger conflict.
Once you've ticked all these boxes, consider how and what you will say. Think H2O*. Begin and end with something positive. Be genuine. Then share your insight. Always conclude with something that is positive. Tackle one thing at a time, piling on the critiques is discouraging and counterproductive.
When offering your critique, follow the "FORMS" method. Ensure your feedback is Factual, Observable, Reliable, Measurable, and Specific. Base feedback on the current event and present moment not on past failings or actions. Avoid language such as always and never. Speak calmly and neutrally. Then let it go. Give them time to evaluate and absorb the information.
Parental behavior provides a clear model for children to follow. In order to teach them how to provide feedback, make an important distinction. Are you offering criticism or a critique? Be brutally honest with yourself. Motive matters. A lot.
Like all skills, successfully providing constructive feedback takes practice. Create opportunities for children to do this. For example, name one night each week "Food Critics Night." Tell them you want mealtimes to be better for you and them. (Mutual goal!) Remind them that they must frame their answers with kindness. (Empathy!) Pass out notepaper and ask them to rate the food. (This shows them you value their opinion.) Provide categories like, eye appeal, flavor, what they liked most, what they liked least, and if they'd like to have it again. (Helps them focus on specifics.)
Your response to their answers will show them how to receive feedback. Keep in mind that your request for feedback demonstrates that it is not to be feared. In fact, it can be a welcome and useful way to gather information. "Negative" feedback is one person's perception, not an attack on you personally. Feedback is not good or bad, right or wrong. It is simply information about how we are in the world and how someone perceives us. Listen to the feedback. Evaluate it. Integrate it. Or, toss it!
Of course, if you receive similar feedback from several people, that might suggest an adjustment would be appropriate.
All families need healthy boundaries, especially adoptive families because we encounter rude incursions into our private business with greater frequency than non-adopted families. People are curious about us, our bonds, our children and our "stories." They yearn to know the inside scoop. And their interest is not always out of compassion. Sometimes people's prurient curiosity seeks "dirt" not facts. Some people may have a genuine desire to understand how adoptive families are formed and how they grow to be a loving family unit but may fail to recognize how private and personal their questions are.
Regardless of their motives, when inquisitive folks ask questions they often pose them at inopportune moments or places and/or fail to consider if we would want to share the information they seek. Equally offensive, they may ask questions in front of our kids--questions that would be inappropriate or hurtful to discuss in our children's presence.
We must train ourselves to remember this: some questions do not deserve an answer. They deserve only a return question: Why would you want to know? If we decide we want to respond, we should first get clarity on the questioner's motives. Are they interested in becoming adoptive parents themselves? Or are they just nosey? There are times, places and people who are available to provide the information being sought. It isn't always us, isn't always at the moment they ask, and isn't always information we care to share. AND THAT IS OKAY! We have the right to withhold an answer. In some cases, we have an obligation to hold our personal boundary and decline to answer.
We must develop well-honed skills both in defining and holding boundaries. As Intentional Parents, we must model this skill so that our children can observe the process in action. Throughout their lives, they will encounter people who feel free to ask intrusive questions and/or offer them unsolicited and inappropriate advice. They must be taught how to respond in ways that preserve their privacy and their self-esteem.
So when someone asks us a personal question within earshot of our kids, treat it as a teaching moment. Imagine being on-stage at Carnegie Hall, spotlights aimed right on us. Think carefully about how and what we say and stay conscious not only of our words but also our tone and our body language. Each of these factors is an important element in our response and helps how it will be received. And it will color what our children will infer about our reply and how it reflects on them.
Although the children may appear to be unaware of the conversation, typically they are alert observers in such a situation. Feigning preoccupation with their own activity serves as camouflage for vigilant attention that takes note of the interaction in meticulous detail. This is our moment to demonstrate how to stand up for oneself, one's privacy, and one's boundaries. It can be done with courtesy and still be effective,
After the encounter, it's essential we debrief our children. Make sure they understood what happened and why we responded the way we did. Point up how the person violated a boundary of common courtesy. Teach the distinction between private and secret. We should share private information only with those whom we trust and whom we know will respect and honor our trust. We don't give personal information to strangers or casual acquaintances. Share details only with those who meet both the trustworthy test and who also have a genuine need to know. Our children's information belongs to them; be very, very certain that this person needs to know it. Once shared, the information cannot ever be "unheard."
Avoid telling children information is secret. This suggests it must be hidden because it is shameful. Adoptees are predisposed to feel shame about being adopted; they don't need another reason to feel it. Labelling information as secret also teaches kids that it is okay to keep secrets. We don't want either of these outcomes.
Children tend to think from a self-oriented point of view. In adopted children, this commonly results in their falsely believe that somehow they caused their adoption. So it is vital to ensure that children realize that any annoyance we displayed toward a rude questioner was aimed at that person and that it is not the children's fault in any way.
It is vital that we never allow our need to please others or avoid awkwardness and confrontations to bully us into answering inappropriate answers. Rude questions deserve a response that clearly holds our personal boundaries. We can be pleasant and still be assertive, confident caretakers of our family's boundaries and personal information.
Teaching our children how and why they should stand up for themselves is an important life skill. It molds them into compassionate people who respect others and who are capable of standing up for right instead of remaining mute in the face of bullying of themselves or others. Courage is something that benefits from practice. Acting with courage in the small moments of life help prepare and strengthen us for life's big challenges.
Sally: 612-203-6530 | Susan: 541-788-8001 | Joann: 312-576-5755 | Gayle: 772-285-9607