It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Your Self-Care and Why It Matters

Normal Attachment Challenges to Parents:

Children usually enter their adoptive homes after orphanage stays or foster care placements with a disorganized attachment style. That means that their pattern of relating to and getting close to parents will be a confusing mixture of behaviors and attitudes that do not really mesh. The child’s signals that they want to be close to parents tend to be muted, contradictory, or an unusual mix of closeness followed by rejection. Children’s disorganized attachment styles make it difficult for their parents to predict how their children will react. Some parents feel unwanted or unappreciated—others feel smothered.

One of the most wearing issues to parents is that they find that they are being controlled, either by children being oppositional in a direct way, or through a role reversal in which children try to take care of parents or want to take on the job of parents. The message to parents seems to be “You aren’t doing it right,” or “You can’t be trusted.” Even parents who are steady, sensitive, successful parents can start to feel unsure about their parenting. As they get weary, they feel like getting tough, avoiding their children, or parenting with high emotion in order to stop the controlling behaviors. If parents move into the these extremes, they find themselves uncannily similar to children’s former parents–with whom their child formed the disorganized style in the first place. Of course, then parents feel very guilty. The goal is to help parents with an awareness of the possible reactions as a normal tension in placement. Parents can steer clear of reactive parents and obtain good self-care right from the onset.

Why do some children have such an effect on parents? Children’s brain patterns are ones that parents can “read” in a primitive, non-verbal ways. Parents feel some of their children’s confusion, approach-avoidance, and fear drama. The children’s inconsistent brain patterns and behaviors are disorienting to parents—as well as very wearing on the parent’s own neurology. They can feel that they are in a state of confusion. “What do I do next?” or “What does that mean?” Some parents remember childhood or teen events during which they were treated with disrespect or even abused. As these memories come up, worn parents can react as if their child is their adversary.

In this workshop we will look at the ways that self-care keeps parents on track. We have research projects that show that the parents who continue to persevere in sensitive, steady, and nurturing parenting are those parents whose children begin moving into secure attachments. Those children become the children who are the most resilient.

Secure attachments are the predictors of who is most likely to recover after childhood neglect or trauma. Secure attachments flourish when parents are nurturing, sensitive, balanced, consistent with consequences and supported in their parenting. Parents will need good self-care in order to maintain their sensitivity, their nurturing qualities, and their home structure–essential for children who are behind in behavioral control.

Brain-based research shows that parents who are connecting closely with their children have the opportunity to shape their children’s brains. Their children begin to develop better abilities to reduce stress as they mirror their parent’s brain patterns. Parents and children can have a brain-to-brain connection when parents are taking time to relate closely to their children. We do not have to share DNA to change the expression of DNA in our children’s minds. Parents are able to stimulate brain cell growth in the “right” areas simply by close connections with their children. However, it can be a struggle to stay nurturing and steady while getting to the place while this can occur. The following are tips to help parents along the way.

Parent Self-Care

Sleep. Getting enough sleep is one of the easiest and most effective choices that parents can make for themselves. Lack of sleep makes parents want to hide from difficult children. It causes more of a wincing reaction than a “I am available for you” reaction to their children. Sleep is critical to success. Parents should routinely get a full eight hours of sleep. While this goes against the grain of society, specialized parenting is almost impossible to do with inadequate sleep. Professionals will need to depend on their own regulation capacities in order to help regulate not just the child, but the parents. Professionals who are working in the field should also work on their sleep. It helps keep them positive in therapy or casework.

Pleasurable Hobbies. Parents do well to maintain some hobby or interest that has special value just to them. It should not be involved with their child’s success or lack of success. It is a pleasant escape that satisfies the parent. A parents with a difficult child put in a yard with scent appeal. Another parent began quilting. Yet another began kickboxing. The appeal of the hobby is that it feeds the creativity of the participant. It removes the parent from constantly fulfilling a role. They are nurturing themselves, which is part of good self-care.

Margins of Time and Energy. Parents do best with high-stress children if they allow themselves margins of time to work within. Parents need to supply extra energy with scant warning at times. They will need to rework schedules–putting in extra minutes and extra space for is their children have an issue. It is a knack to protect this time without guilt. One parent described it in a matter-of-fact way: “I told my neighbor that I could not pick up her daughter daily, even though it is on the ways to the kid’s school. It would put daily pressure on me to make that stop on time, since I could only succeed if everything went perfectly. I wouldn’t be a good friend to myself if I placed that burden on myself.”

Quiet time to process. When parents have new and difficult events in their lives, lots of information has to be processed. Problematically, the old ways in which we have defined our lives– safety, beliefs, roles, may have to change. Most people need to do a revision of their world view in order to fit the new circumstances of their lives. They need quiet time in which to do this thinking. Paradoxically, almost all anxious children are noisy. It is critical for parents, especially stay-at-home mothers, to have an hour a day of simple quiet at their disposal. This time should not be spent running errands, but instead should be quiet time to play or process information. One woman walks her dog or plays with him on the porch. A couple takes turns reading aloud while they sit in the hot tub.

Thinking of sports, beauty, goodness, and loveliness. When we are attaching to a child, we encounter their pain, loss and fear. We will feel entwined with these emotions. To keep a balance, and to keep from become overwhelmed by a despair, we need to spend ample time with healthy and positive experiences. Having flowers in the house, going to football games, eating great deli food, visiting an art show, and watching classic movies with good endings are all examples of protecting a positive attitude in life.

Fifty Pleasures. When parents are worn out and dejected, it may be because they have an endless to-do list—and have deleted the fun or enjoyable things in life. I like to see them make a list of 50 items. The list might include going to a movie, putting scent in the bath water, getting a latte, painting toe nails, sleeping in on Saturday morning, arranging flowers, poking around in a hardware store, making love, and so forth. Every week, the person will need to be able to get 50 check marks on the list. You can use the same item more than once. For example, you could drink a latte a day, and make love twice a day to boost the number to a quick 21. The theory is that life has just stopped being pleasurable because there is no enough positive reinforcement. This exercise helps to get the “to do” list redefined so that the positive reinforcement comes up dramatically.

Support Group. How refreshing it is to meet with other people who are doing similar parenting! Finding parents who have children with similar challenges, who require similar parenting approaches, makes a big difference in feeling understood. Often agencies can refer parents to other parents who adopted or fostered, but who are a little further along in their journeys. These connections are invaluable in normalizing the specific challenges that parents have to face.

Re-set your body rhythm. When we spend time in nature, or sit in a hot tub, or take walks, our bodies have a chance to regain their natural rhythms. When we spend time with an intense child, sometimes our body pacing starts gets set to their rhythm—reflecting their feelings of fear and distress. Parents need to regain their own peace of mind. Taking short breaks during the day will help to accomplish this re-set. I am a great believer in “coffee breaks” for stay-at-home parents. Listening to music that is set at a tempo of 40-60 beats per minute will help parents to regulate themselves. The piano music of George Winston, in which he plays out nature themes, is used by some parents for their children. It works equally well for parents.

Nurture Spirituality. Tap into a Source of love bigger than you are. Allow yourself to be loved and cherished by the Creator of the Universe and the Creator of these children. You are not just a tool or a role, you are loved and God delights in you. It helps to stay mindful of this throughout the day.

Put on Twenty and One Hundred-Year Glasses. What will really matter in 20 years and 100 years? Are you on course? If so, stay on course even while living in our current culture that does not always value its people more than its things. As you care for your children, reassure yourself that you are investing correctly, and that it is normal to be counterculture.

Avoid Pile-Ups. Keep the household running smoothly and avoid the accumulation of unresolved issues. Get your taxes done, balance your accounts, shop for and eat healthy food, and get the household flowing smoothly. Families that end up in dissolution often have a pile-up of accumulated problems. Keep ahead of the curve. Do not hesitate to simplify your life so that you can manage it.

Get Help. If you feel yourself slipping, get help for yourself—not just your children. “Rent” the well-balanced and less-stressed brain of a therapist who is adoption-savvy. Import fresh energy and caring person who is watching out for your well-being.

Make and Keep Good Friends. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated. Instead mark the calendar for dedicated time for friends. We all need each other to keep balanced, regulated, and happy.

Trauma /Grief Impact on the Professional And Parent

We become witnesses to the child’s overwhelming grief, shame, terror, guilt, and confusion. We become responsible for the emotional support that will sustain the child through grieving.

We become intimately aware of egregious realities like the abandonment of children, injury of children, and death of parents.

We are asked to provide answers to life’s unsolvable problems.

We cannot communicate with our loved ones the issues we work with.

We can experience confusion, disorientation, hyperarousal, and hypervigilance as we deal with trauma/loss themes.

We can experience compassion strain.

We can become numb, distant, angry, and insensitive if we are not supported in our work.

We can become more interested in our client’s or child’s life than our own.

We can require others to try to make up to the child, and to us, the injustices of life.

Our processed memories of grief and trauma can become activated, and we can become unstable.

We can feel compelled to change something—including jobs, relationships, homes, or religions—further destabilizing ourselves.

When children have had trauma in their lives, then it is important for parents to obtain the services of a trauma therapist. This is not a “do it yourself” project—even for parents who are professionals in the field. Many reputable studies now show that children who receive trauma therapy do much, much better than those who do not. Part of self-care is to share the burden of your child’s trauma with the therapist.

More information on this subject can be found in Attaching with Love, Joy, and Hugs, Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today’s Parents and Nurturing Attachment: Creating Resilience after Trauma and Neglect. All are published by Jessica Kinglsey Press.