By Gail Heaton
Why is it so hard for us adults to mess up? I don’t mean hard for us; I think it’s pretty easy to mess up. It’s hard on us to mess up. Maybe it’s just me, but on the days that I really blow it and expose my brokenness to my inner critic (who’s only too eager to finger point and say, ‘aha! You failed. Again’), I find myself at a familiar three-way crossroads: pushing blame on others by pretending it's anyone’s fault but mine; turning a blind eye to the whole mess by pretending none of it ever happened, or accepting responsibility that I messed up.
I ran into this situation when I started researching what resident children need. The research was for a book I’m writing on the subject, as well as other resources meant to resident children faced. I wanted to know if there
was a formula for preparing resident children best to thrive as the brother or sister of a sibling from a trauma background. (I don’t think there is one set formula by the way.)
There I was, surrounded by research that implicated me in several errors of judgment about what my own kids needed from me but didn’t get. For example, I thought that putting out sibling strife fires as they came up would be a good strategy for supporting my five biological kids. Instead of being proactive to prevent issues between the siblings, I waited until there were obvious problems before I stepped in. Waiting until smaller issues became big problems might have worked if I had appropriate tools for the job. You can’t put out a wildfire with gasoline, though, and that’s what I had to work with.
So, what’s a mom to do after finding out that fighting fire is less effective than addressing smoke issues before they become too hot to handle? If we take a lesson from the folks at The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development (Texas Christian University), the answer is a re-do! Have you heard of re-dos? It’s a strategy to modify unwanted behavior by creating an empowering and fun environment to train the child to do over an action or behavior that went south earlier.
The genius behind the re-do is the understanding that many of the unwanted behaviors in our kiddos have to do with lack of skill comprehension, rather than all-out rebellion, or meanness. So, the idea is that discipline must involve teaching those skills and not just pointing out their lack in those skills. In the case of our kids from trauma backgrounds especially, but all kids in general (yes, even adult kids like you and me), it is imperative that we not punish them for not knowing or being able to do the ‘correct’ behavior. Instead, we offer playfulness and connection as we give them another chance to try a certain behavior again. Here is an example of what I mean – an imaginary conversation between a child and her mother, where the mother uses a re-do with her daughter.
Child: “Get me pizza!”
Mom: “Whoa buddy! Are you asking or telling? Why don’t you try that again, please?”
Child: “May I please have pizza now?”
It’s clear by the mom’s tone of voice, her soft gaze, and her posture lowered to her child’s eye level that no one’s in trouble. Mom didn’t focus on the ‘wrong attitude’, she didn’t lecture; she emphasized the right way. The child got to re-wire her brain for success. I learned from the research that with each practice of the ‘right way’, a neural pathway gets established to override the old behavior patterns. And then they can move on.
One of the best parts of the 're-do' approach for vulnerable kids is the final step, move on. When kids are taught how to re-do, they begin to ignore the inner voice telling them they are no good, and they release the shame they felt for ‘messing up’. Essentially, it’s saying, ‘Don't get stuck in shame that you needed a re-do in the first place. Identify the action you need to change, accept the mistake, practice the correct way, and keep that train moving.’
Let's apply this to parenting resident children.
It never occurred to me that my resident children would need specialized training to prepare them for the changes that adoption would bring them. This is because I thought I’d put enough in their “love tanks” from the years before the adoptions to withstand any displacement they might feel when my attention was diverted away from them. I thought that their feelings of security and love up to that point would somehow override any new feelings of insecurity that bringing seven-year-old special needs brothers into the family would cause. I sorely underestimated the amount of time and emotional energy I’d need to put into their brothers as well as the
fallout on the resident kids from their brothers’ trauma-related behaviors. I
assumed my resident children would readily come to me with any issues they had: this meant that their silence was a good sign. I didn’t think I needed to talk about to them about special needs, trauma, and early histories. It wasn’t really until I came upon all the research that I learned that, yeah, they could have definitely benefited from more proactive education on all of the above.
This is where the adult re-do comes in. Once you know better, you can do better. The re-do is the way to do better now. Do better can look like anyone of these ideas:
(Links are italicized)
- When you learn that kids need a safe place to vent their frustrations and you haven’t provided that for them before, you either become that un-judgmental space for them or find them a support group where they can talk to others who face the same issues they do.
- When you learn that siblings of kids with trauma can succumb to ‘secondary trauma stress’ themselves, you educate yourself on the signs of stress in your resident kids.
- When you learn that kids won’t always come to you with their issues, you encourage them to.
- When you learn that resident kids need to know about their siblings’ hard early life so that they can be prepared for some of the issues that will affect them personally, you talk to them about it, in age-appropriate ways.
- When you realize that you didn’t always use to make room for your child’s big feelings, you start conversations with them now to let them know that feelings don’t have to be overwhelming.
- When you realize that your resident kids have been shouldering unrealistic expectations of sibling harmony, you start today to help them.
When you start to become better educated through our Suddenly Siblings™ programs and resources, you might feel uneasy about how your children may be faring. It is crucial for you to know that it’s never too late to support your resident child, even years later. We at Suddenly Siblings™ are working hard to get our first book published, In the Best Interest: Empowering the Voices of Your resident Child to better support you and your resident child. And we love to offer re-dos at every step of the way!
Always remember our motto: once you know better, you can do better.
That's true for our kids from hard places, for our resident kids, and yes, for
“Whoa buddy, wanna try that again?”