Many adoptive and foster caregivers find themselves confronted with behaviours that impact daily life—not being able to get out of bed in the morning, throwing things, hoarding food, violence and abuse, sexually acting out, emotionally short-fused, or flat-lined. It is no surprise caregivers seek out mental health professionals to “fix” the behaviours.

Psychotherapist and co-author of Nurturing Resilience, Stephen Terrell, says most children with behavioural issues have experienced a rupture in their early life, which has caused them to become dysregulated. Over time, they develop (maladaptive) management techniques, which lead to diagnoses and medication. But, according to Terrell, this approach does not work.

“The process of healing needs to be very subtle, rather than a quick fix, which tends to have a rebound effect when halted—that is, a return to earlier behaviours,” he says.

Terrell suggests that the first piece caregivers need to work on is establishing safety. Wait a minute, not love? “When you show a child love it scares them; they have a fear response. Then it’s almost like they are setting you up to replicate their behaviour.”

Why a fear response? This is where polyvagal hero, Stephen Porges, gets his moment in the sun. Porges has taught us that the nervous system becomes dysregulated due to the thwarted responses of fight, flight, or freeze in the aftermath of trauma. Relying on neuroception, a term coined by Porges, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) helps our body to differentiate between safety, danger, and a life threat. This process is automatic. It does not go through thinking. Everything from sound to smell to temperature in our environment, people’s tone of voice, and eye contact can influence our neuroception. It is like a “guardian angel” that helps us take immediate action in the face of danger or threat. Its goal is to keep us safe and alive. But when neuroception does not function properly due to unhealed traumas, it can make our children feel unsafe even where there is no real threat.

So, how can caregivers establish safety? Terrell recommends a few techniques, including:

  • safe touch (touch therapy)
  • neutral body language
  • monitoring prosody (tone of voice) and avoiding the lower register (males) and higher register (females), which signifies threat
  • avoiding blaming statements and arguing back, which trigger anger and shame.

For those caregivers who may argue that they have had their child since birth (and, therefore, establishing safety is not necessary), it is important to understand that because the child was pre-verbal when the rupture occurred, dysregulation is held in the body (physiologically) not the brain. For example, a baby who is kept in an incubator at birth may experience dysregulation around hunger in later years, even though food has been readily available in later years. So, it’s important to look behind the behaviour to see what may have caused the arousal.

Terrell’s final piece of advice for caregivers is not to be overly concerned about lying, they need to understand that this is the last thing that will go away. “It’s counter-intuitive, but we want our kids to keep lying because that is what is keeping them safe while caregivers work on regulation. What is important to know is what is triggering our children so that we can understand (and change) the blueprint.”

Hot tips: How to establish safety at night

  • Turn the lights down in the house, particularly the living area, before bedtime. This helps to slow things down. All technology should be turned off.
  • Lock the doors at night with your child. Don’t do it after he has gone to bed.
  • Place a hot water bottle underneath the kidneys at night. This begins the process of regulating the adrenals.
  • Use weighted blankets for that cocooning feeling.
  • At Christmas or Easter, leave gifts outside or in the garage rather than have someone come down your chimney or bounce into the house overnight.

© Felicia Stewart, 2019

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