When I began working with families as a parent educator and therapist in Florida, natural and enforced logical consequences were the go-to parenting strategy. I worked with many families stuck in destructive, multi-generational parenting patterns, many with significant personal issues and at risk of losing custody of their children. All of them truly wanted to do better, to break the cycle, to rise above the weight of the multigenerational and multi-systemic structures of oppression they couldn’t seem to be able to escape.
My advice was simple; be consistent, use systems of rewards and consequences (punishment) that send your children the message that the world would undoubtedly later provide: For every action there’s a reaction, and for every missed step, there’s a consequence.
Those families worked really hard at creating rule/consequence charts (such as sticker charts), hoping that if we together determined and employed the “right” consequence, we would be able to influence and hopefully eliminate undesired behaviors. Sometimes that worked, but most of the time the desired outcome was short-lived. More often than not, we tore the whole system down and went back to the drawing board to try to identify a better system — one that more closely aligned with the child’s personality and, though there were some positive results, the behavior always came back. The parents burned out — some overwhelmed and convinced they were ill-equipped to parent, others succumbing to unhealthy coping strategies — and I felt like a failure.
I remember the moment I decided I needed to find a different approach, I was sitting in front of my computer writing up a plan for another family with whom I was working. I vividly recall the frustration and dissolution I felt in my heart and in my gut, burdened by the fact that my work with those families didn’t seem to be helping at all. My thoughts floated to that definition of insanity many of us have heard before (doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results).
It would be years before I gained access to information about brain biochemistry and physiology and its effects on behavior, that I began to make the connections to formulate plans that have impacted the way I parent and the guidance I provide others stuck in unproductive parenting feedback loops — many of them feeling like absolute failures. How could we possibly expect positive responses from children while utilizing what are effectively punitive approaches?
Doctors Karin Purvis and Daniel Siegel became my mentors. Their books, videos, and articles made me understand that what changes behavior is human connection, a sense of safety, and the unwavering support of dedicated caregivers. Drawing from Purvis, Siegel, and others, Elana Roschy, WACAP’s Director of Social Service, explains, “Moving away from a fear-based approach doesn’t only focus on behavior, but on the physiological and stress responses that produces behavior.”
Yes, the parent/child relationship is hierarchal, but it is also a cooperative relationship that supports healthy brain development and allows both children and caregivers to attune to the internal processes that directly impact human behavior. As adoptive parents, often more frequently than those parenting biological children, we have to be aware of the impact trauma has on our children’s brain, and we have to create environments within which they are able to relax, get out of their reptilian brain (the reactive part) and open their ability to learn new strategies as neurological connections shaped through trusting relationships begin to form.
- Bryan Post’s “The Adopted Child: Trauma and Its Impact,” which includes a list of what we can do to heal trauma in the adopted child.
- Daniel Siegel’s Ted Talk on “Mindfulness and Neural Integration,” which “examines how relationships and reflection support the development of resilience in children and serve as the basic 3 R’s (Reflection, Relationships, and Resilience) of a new internal education of the mind.”
- Heather Forbes’ book, “Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control.”
About WACAP’s Clinical Director, Zoila Lopez: Zoila joined WACAP in 2016 as Clinical Director. She is an adoptive mom, a former foster parent, and brings to her new role an extensive background of work as a therapist and adoption coach to support all members of the adoption triad.