I can always see them coming. At live events (remember when we used to do those sort of things?), when I’d visit with people after a breakout session or keynote, I’d often glance up at the line of people waiting to talk to me. I’d see that familiar look on the faces of parents waiting to tell me their story. A ‘look’ I’ve known all too well over the years. The look of exhaustion, desperation, and hopelessness.
They’d tell me a familiar story: “My child is highly Impulsive….can’t think past the moment…reacts aggressively to my directions….doesn’t understand there’s a bigger picture…or more to life….lives in the moment….I don’t know what to do to help her think beyond the ‘here and now’!”
Boy do I understand. I’ve been there, and hundreds (if not thousands) of parents we’ve coached and helped over the years are in the same boat. But to truly learn how to help your child think long term, you must begin with you. Here are a few key mindsets to remember…
- REMEMBER: their trauma history. This is the starting point. It’s easy to jump to frustration because you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall trying to get them to think past the here and now. Step back and remind yourself that this child has a trauma history. And that trauma has directly impacted the frontal lobe of their brain. Logic, reasoning, impulse control, self-control all take a direct hit from trauma. In short, your child may not HAVE the ability to think long-term. This point doesn’t solve anything (we’ll get to that in a moment). What it does, however, is reframe your point of view. And that reframe can move you out of frustration, to understanding, compassion, and calm. MONDO important response!
- REMEMBER: It’s moment-to-moment! My two friends, Dr. Ira Chasnoff and his son Gabe Chasnoff, have a an amazing organization called NTI Upstream (check it out on our resource page here). One of the BEST resources they’ve created is a documentary called Moment-To-Moment: Teens Growing Up With FASDs (FASD stands for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). The film points out a very powerful reality that we as parents of children with a trauma history, need to understand (whether or not you’re parenting a child with an FASD or not): because of the damage our children’s trauma has done to the pre-frontal cortex of their brain, and because many children often function out of survival mode due to trauma, their behavior is often moment-to-moment. You could be driving home after an adventure to your local zoo, where everything seemed to be peachy and right with the world, and suddenly in the car, on the way home, your child flips! One day may be amazing, and the next simply hell on earth. It’s like being in a house, and walking from room to room, but none of the rooms have any connection to, or are a carry over of the previous room. It’s almost like they’re jumping to different rooms in different houses. You simply cannot base Tuesday’s successes or failures on Monday’s successes or failures with your child. You will frustrate yourself if you expect one day’s successes to carry over to the next. So what do you do then? You, the caregiver, must commit to consistency yourself. Your tone, your emotions, and the structured environment you create, MUST be a repeat, day after day after day!
- REMEMBER: Your role is crucial to their success. And what exactly is your role? Or will your role be? Walking with them (we’ll get into this more in-depth in a minute). And you may be ‘walking’ with them for the rest of your life here on earth. This doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be living with you, or you will have to parent them like you do now. It just means you will remain hands on even as your child moves into adulthood. Fact is, you may never be able to get your impulsive child to think long-term on their own. That’s a reality. You may have to do the long-term thinking for them. Someday they may live on their own but need you to help them through the moment-to-moment. That may be our role as caregivers on this journey.
- REMEMBER: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” At the beginning of this post I mentioned this phrase, commonly used to illustrate patience, time, and endurance. Nothing is more fitting for the journey of parenting a child who has a trauma history, an FASD, or attachment issues. This is the long haul. This is way different then parenting a typical developing child.
Now that you’re squared away on things you need to keep in mind as a caregiver, let’s get practical on how you actually can help your child…
- Walk with them, not over them. I mentioned ‘walking with’ your child earlier, but let me expound on this. Assuming that we are all high-functioning (for the most part) high-productive adults, it’s often hard for us to understand how trauma disrupts normal abilities or functionality. Our response, therefore, is often abrupt to our child. In other words, we just kind of expect that they can think beyond the end of their noses, because we can. But they can’t. This means that we need to figuratively (or literally) hold their hand through seasons, decisions, or big moments. We have a close friend who graduated two children from high school several years ago. She shared that one of her children chose her own college, applied on her own, and got herself ready for the next phase in life, with little, to no, help from her parents. Their other child, a son, who has a trauma history from his early childhood days, needed their assistance with everything (and I mean EVERYTHING!). Our friend told us later that she felt like she and her husband were actually applying to college themselves. But they realized that walking with their son, as opposed to expecting him to get all of his gear together with college on his own, was the only way he could be successful.
- Segmented reminders. Our own impulsion as caregivers is to remind, remind, remind, remind (aka- harp, harp, harp, harp) over and over and over until our child comprehends, or acknowledges us. But what our child hears after the first couple of reminders is the equivalent of Charlie Brown’s teacher (“wa wa wa wa”). Their brains literally cannot retain the repeated instructions. It’s like trying to have a conversation with a person in front of a loud speaker that continues to grow louder and louder each passing second. In fact, if you are parenting a child with an FASD, one big characteristic is the ability of the child or person to understand a task given to them, articulate that task back to the person giving it to them, but zero ability to carry it through to completion. We have parents come to us, all the time, frustrated because, in their words, “their child just wants to do the opposite of what they are told to do!” Could be. Or it could be a child who lacks the executive functioning ability to complete a task due. This is why segmented reminders and walking with them, not over them, is crucial. The way segmented reminders work is this: you ask your child to do something- let’s say it’s cleaning up the play room in your house. You ask, “Hey, could you pick up the toys from the floor and put them in the toy bins?” Child doesn’t respond to this request. So you wait. You give it a 10-20 second count. You may even wait a few minutes. Then, you remind again- “Hey buddy, would you be able to pick up the toys in the playroom for me?” Child may still not respond to your request. It’s easy, at this point, to grow frustrated, but it’s crucial that you keep your cool. You count off another 10, 15, or 20 seconds, then ask again. That’s how segmented reminders work. You may have to volunteer to help your child clean up, or stand in the room with him if segmented reminders aren’t working. All of this must be cloaked in a secret parenting ally we call “Calm and Firm.”
- Remain Calm, Remain Firm. You may have heard us speak on this previously, but with children who have a trauma history, one of your greatest parenting allies is remaining calm and remaining firm. This can act as a natural de-escalation, re-regulation, or task completion tool. It’s a given that people tend to respond more positively and quickly to the person who is calm. Children do as well. Walking with your child, and giving them segmented reminders to complete a task do not work if you are personally frustrated, your tone is heightened, your body language is abrupt, your facial expressions are visibly upset. I repeat, they DO NOT work. I can promise this: if you want to experience success with your child, if you want to truly help them along this journey, then your reaction, your demeanor, and your emotions must be kept in check.
- Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. Many years ago, I was hosting a live Q&A Webinar on FASDs with Dr. Ira Chasnoff when he told the audience that every single day must be a repeat of the day before. He said, “your role may be to repeat, repeat, repeat.” As I mentioned earlier, we may never fully help our children think long-term on their own. We may have to walk with them, and point out ways they can think beyond the moment. We may repeat ourselves a billion times before there’s comprehension. That may be a frustrating reality, but that’s the reality you signed up for.
I want to close this post by highlighting something crucial. Your child may live moment to moment. He or she may live IN the moment all the time. And it may be frustrating, exhausting, and quite defeating for you. Remember: this is not a child who wants to make life difficult for you (or even for themselves). This is a child who’s entire life has been altered by trauma. And their behavior is a by-product of that trauma. Success is possible on this journey when you and I commit to seeing circumstances, and situations differently, and in turn, respond to our children differently.