Navigating the Skies

I was invited to speak at the Florida Foster/Adoptive Parent Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida last weekend. It is always a special privilege to share with families who are in the trenches. I love meeting them, hearing their stories, and being able to share information and experiences that can help them on their journey of hope and healing. I find it easy to be vulnerable with like minded people. I feel like I want to open up to them, honestly, it’s very therapeutic. Perhaps that is what I ultimately like about having the opportunity to speak at events like this one.

But this isn’t about my time in Orlando at the conference. No, this is about my flight home.

The pilot made two announcements before we left the gate; “Our flight is completely full today” and “It’s probably going to be bumpy as we climb out.” I assume that both of those announcements are made on every flight leaving Orlando in the month of June. It is where Mickey Mouse lives after all and afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence in central Florida.

Soon after that we left the gate and started our journey home. We spent the first fifteen minutes in the air either turning left or right. At no point did it seem like we were flying in a straight line until we were above the clouds because the pilot was navigating the rough air so that we didn’t have to experience the turbulence. He was cutting a path between the clouds to give us the smoothest ride possible. The climb out of Orlando reminded me that someone who is gifted and skilled can masterfully navigate the skies and avoid the turbulent air.

The first 15 minutes of that flight got me thinking that being a parent is a lot like being a pilot. They are both leadership exercises.

Being a parent is a lot like being a pilot. They are both leadership exercises. Click To Tweet

They are both leadership exercises because:

  1. You have to be equipped to do your job
  2. You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”
  3. You have to navigate the turbulent air

You have to be equipped to do your job

Our pilot didn’t just climb into the cockpit and fly the plane one day. He is a highly trained and experienced person. He did the work necessary to do his job well. He made the investment in himself (and by extension in all of us sitting behind him) to do his job with the skill required.

But training by itself is not enough. He needed the right kind of training. Pilots need to be trained in the principles of flight. Not just flying a plane.

Parents who are raising children with trauma histories need to be trained in trauma. They need to understand the risk factors that make a hard place. They need to understand how that trauma impacts the brain, body, biology, beliefs, and behavior of their child. They need to understand how their kids respond to fear. Understanding these things is vital to your ability to navigate the skies.

We all accept that athletes need a coach and they need to practice so that they can be at their best. Yet, many parents are reluctant to accept that they need a coach or need to practice to be at their best. I doubt that many (if any) of them would fly on an airplane piloted by someone who is neither trained nor experienced.

You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”

Pilot or parent, like it or not, you are responsible for everyone on your airplane. That’s what you signed up for. We cannot expect our children to have the tools necessary to self-regulate, take responsibility for their actions, or repair their mistakes. We have to show them how. We have to lead them on their healing journey. We have to model these things for them. Dr. Purvis used to say that unless you taught your child how to do something, you should assume that they don’t know how to do it.

As parents, we know that we are responsible for our families, but that responsibility extends way beyond food, shelter, and clothing. We are responsible for their emotional development and relational healing. Adoptive and foster parents have to heal wounds we didn’t inflict and redeem ground we didn’t lose. This is a foundational reality that we have to embrace about parenting kids with trauma histories. This is how we take responsibility for those behind us on our airplane.

You have to navigate the turbulent air

This means two things. We need to find a way to avoid the turbulent air if we can, and since that isn’t always possible, we need to know how to navigate safely back to smooth air when we find ourselves in turbulent air.

I would suggest that there are two ways to do that. One is to be equipped for the journey by getting that training we need in order to understand our kid’s histories. The second way is to become the world’s leading experts in our children. Since being equipped was addressed earlier I won’t repeat it here, I’ll focus on becoming an expert on who your child is.

We must become the world’s leading experts in our children. Click To Tweet

I can’t overstate this point, we need to know who our kids are in order to be the agents of healing they need us to be. We need to know their triggers, their hurts, and their hangups. We need to know how much sleep they need, how frequently they need nutrition and hydration. We need to know their allergies and their reactions to foods and stressors. We need to know what helps them regulate and what we need to do to re-integrate their upstairs and downstairs brains. We can’t navigate the turbulent air if we don’t know these things.

It’s a matter of trust

The pilot made another announcement about 90 minutes into the flight; “Folks, I’m going to turn the seat belt sign on again as it’s getting bumpy, but don’t worry we’ll do our best to find some smooth air for you.” I had no anxiety when he made that announcement. I had complete faith that he would do what he said because he had proven that he could find the smooth air when we started the journey. He had already demonstrated his ability to navigate the skies. That’s how trust is established, you prove that you are up to the task. You lead those you are responsible for to a better place. You show your kids how when they don’t know how. We can’t always avoid the turbulence, but we can do our best to find the smooth air. We have to, our kids are depending on us.

That’s how trust is established, you prove that you are up to the task. Click To Tweet

Just in case you were wondering, the seat belt sign was turned off 20 minutes later when we found ourselves back in the clean air.

My thanks to Captain Chuck Oltman (pictured below) for the safe, smooth flight home.

Ignorance and Malice Are Not the Same Thing

One of the things that we truly believe is that people thrive in community. You simply cannot thrive in isolation, and a key ingredient in what adoptive and foster families need to thrive is to be connected to a healthy church ministry that understands them and will support them as they travel their adoption and foster care journey. Feeling connected is the first step towards being engaged. Families feel connected when they feel like their kids are understood and loved.

Families feel connected when they feel like their kids are understood and loved. Click To Tweet

Children’s ministry is so different now from what I remember as a child. I can still recall the little church I grew up attending. On Sunday mornings all of the children would gather and sing a few songs at the front of the Worship Center. We would sing songs from “This little light of mine I’m gonna let it shine” to “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.” After that we would be dismissed to our classes where we were taught the Sunday School lesson.

But the world my children are growing up in is vastly different to the one that I grew up in. There are more things vying for our attention than ever before which has created an attention deficit society. We are bombarded and we are overload. Everything is bigger, better, faster, more and children’s ministry in many ways resembles now that. We try to pack more into 75 minutes than we ever have before.

According to study conducted by the Barna group they found that 45% of adults picked a church based on the strength of the children’s programming offered. Now, that is both good and terrifying news for our churches. It is good news because a healthy, strong children’s ministry is a great way for families to get connected to the church. But if the program is not thriving then it will be a reason that many families move away. According to the research, our churches have both a great opportunity and a great responsibility.

But I think we need to talk about a key assumption before we go any further because I hear this from families all of the time; “children’s ministry doesn’t care about our kids.” While that statement can feel very real to parents, I counter that assumption with this idea; most people are not malicious, they’re just not informed, they don’t know any better.

I once had a boss who shared the following with me, and it has helped my frustration level every time I have encountered a situation where I felt like people were not understanding what I was trying to communicate. He told me to “never assume malice when ignorance will be sufficient.” We tend to assign sinister motives to people when the most likely cause of their actions is that they simply don’t know any better.

Here is the definition of MALICE

Malice [mal-is] noun – the desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness.

That doesn’t sound like anyone I know who works in children’s ministry. I don’t know any people who volunteer their time on Sundays who have the desire to inflict injury or harm on the kids at our church. Children’s ministry volunteers are rarely, if ever, described as mean.

Here is the definition of IGNORANT.

Ignorant [ig-ner-uh-nt] adjective – lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned, lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact, uninformed; unaware.

When it comes to understanding trauma and its impacts on our kids, I have to agree with the advice my old boss gave me all of those years ago; “Never assume malice when ignorance will be sufficient.”

Now, some people might bristle at the thought of being considered ignorant, but the word simply means unaware or uninformed; lacking in knowledge or training.

Children’s ministry is designed to be both instructional and entertaining because we have to create an environment where kids are taught the truth of scripture while making sure it was fun enough that they want to come back next week.

The biggest problem with that idea is that it offers no understanding of what a hard place is and how our kids are affected by them.

The 6 risk factors that make a hard place are:

  1. Prenatal stress and harm
  2. Difficult labor and delivery
  3. Early medical trauma
  4. Abuse
  5. Neglect
  6. Trauma

Before we go any further I think we can all agree that those 6 risk factors are not unique to adopted or foster children. But here’s the thing, if our children’s ministry staff and volunteers do not know the 6 risk factors that make a hard place, and how they impact the brain, biology, body, beliefs, and behavior of our kids, we cannot make them responsible for using connected strategies with the children. We have to own the fact that it is our responsibility as advocates for these children, our children, to educate and equip the key people in the children’s ministry at our churches.

We bear a great responsibility in the matter. Because asking the church to have a trauma informed ministry is a big ask. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to do differently what they have done the same way for years. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to change their assumptions about some of the children in their care. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to interact with the children differently. It’s a big ask because we’re asking them to think about what trauma is and how it impacts each child.

And if we ask them, we have to be prepared to equip them. You see it’s not enough to ask people to implement a trauma informed ministry if we have not given them the tools and the resources they will need.

It's not enough to ask people to implement a trauma informed ministry, we must equip them. Click To Tweet

Before we ask children’s ministries to change, we need to ensure that we have the knowledge and the experience to equip them. We need to have read The Connected Child multiple times we need to have read The Whole-Brain Child multiple times. We should all know how to explain the “Handy Model of the Brain” and how we “flip our lids” and how we can re-connect our upstairs brain to our downstairs brain again. We cannot ask others to do something if we are not willing to do it ourselves. We cannot ask others to do something if we have not equipped them.

What we are doing is asking a big ship to change direction.

There are two things that are true about big ships turning. One of them is that big ships turn slowly and the second is that big ships encounter the roughest waters in the middle of the turn because they are being broadsided by the waves. You should expect the same two things from the big ship that you’re trying to turn at your church.

Ships encounter the roughest waters in the middle of the turn. Click To Tweet

But don’t be discouraged because God asks us to do big things and then he equips us to do big things. The bible says that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he prepared in advance for us to do. Helping your children’s ministry become a trauma informed ministry is just a part of you walking in your calling.

Our church asked my wife to be a roaming behavior interventionist at VBS last summer. As she was walking down the hallway one day she heard two distinctive sounds,  One was a crying child and the other was an aggressive tone coming  from one of the teenage volunteers. As my wife got closer she heard the teenage girl say this to the crying 4 year old, “I’m going to leave you out here by yourself if you don’t stop crying and you’re not going to get a snack when you get back to class.”

Let’s unpack that for a minute.

A crying child is a child that is in distress. Instead of responding to him like he was struggling, she responded to him like he was behaving badly. But before we judge the teenage girl too harshly let’s consider this…she didn’t know any better. Nobody had equipped her for that moment and it is most likely that her experience as a child amounted to this, “Do as you’re told or suffer the consequences”, just like she told the little boy. I don’t believe that the first time she heard the words “stop crying or I’m going to leave you out here by yourself” was when she uttered them that morning to the 4 year old little boy.

That incident at that VBS was a turning point for our church. That was when they realized that they had to start doing things differently and asked us to come and train them on trauma and how it affects the children in their care.

Now, back to the teenage girl because she really illustrates the issue at hand. She was doing the best she could with what she knew. Maya Angelou once said “Do the best you can until you know better and when you know better, do better.”

We all know better, now we bear the responsibility to help our churches know better so that they can do better. So that they can become life-giving communities where adoptive and foster families feel like they belong.

Here is an audio version of the text if you’d like to listen to Ryan presenting at CAFO Summit 2016 in Orlando.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

I recently presented at a conference for adoptive and foster parents. My assigned topic; Building Healthy Relationships and Boundaries with Your Biological Relatives. I was excited when the topic was first assigned to me. There are many books on the subject of boundaries, so preparation should have been easy, except that I couldn’t find many on the subject on healthy boundaries with biological relatives for adoptive and foster families. And so I encountered a challenge immediately; I’d have to confront my own issues and experiences to do the topic justice.

Boundaries are interesting and most people are reluctant to establish them, but Brene Brown reminds us that “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” So much wisdom and beauty in her words, but to get to the place she suggests requires effort and intentionality.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk… Click To Tweet

Remember The Alamo

What images come to mind when you think of Texas? Most of us think of cowboy hats, horses, longhorn steer, the Dallas Cowboys, JR Ewing, oil fields, and of course The Alamo. So much of Texas is tied to the events that took place there in 1836. Colonel William Barett Travis was the commander at the mission during the Battle of The Alamo (February 23 – March 6, 1836). He wrote a letter on the second day of the battle (February 24) To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World asking for reinforcements during the siege which he famously signed “Victory or death”.

One the penultimate day of the battle (March 5) he drew a line in the sand between him and his men and said, “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” All but one of his men stepped across the line.

How many times have you drawn a line in the sand when something far less drastic would have been sufficient?

We all too often embrace our inner William B. Travis when it comes to boundaries in our relationships. We need to remember that a boundary and a line in the sand are not the same things. Victory or death is rarely a healthy posture in relationships. It’s important to remember that boundaries and ultimatums are not the same things. If we don’t, our recognition that most relationships don’t require ultimatums will manifest itself as an unwillingness to establish healthy boundaries. Once you draw a line in the sand you remove most of your ability to be flexible. That’s a problem because flexibility is more than a friend, it’s your ally.

Once you draw a line in the sand you remove most of your ability to be flexible. Click To Tweet

Just another brick in the wall

Let’s face it, none of us had the unconditional support of our “people” when we decided to grow our families the way we did. I can’t remember many (if any) stories of extended family and friends rejoicing at the news that there were plans to adopt or foster. This was an issue for us for a long time until we realized that no one dreams of becoming a grandparent through adoption, and no one hoped to become a foster grandparent. So we have to give them the grace we want for ourselves.

But we also have to recognize that there are some hurts associated with our decision to adopt or foster, many which stem from the (real or perceived) lack of support we received from those close to us. And those hurts manifest themselves when it comes to establishing healthy boundaries. We need to make sure that we don’t build walls in the name of healthy boundaries. Yes, a wall is a boundary, but it is rarely the best relational boundary.

Healthy boundaries are necessary for healthy relationships

One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is the presence of healthy boundaries. They can be difficult but are necessary for relationships to grow and develop. We all agree that people should not be able to say what they want, do what they want, have unrestricted access, etc. in a healthy relationship. The problem is that most of us can easily see that for others and not for ourselves. Adoption and foster care requires us to see the need for healthy relationships not only for ourselves but for our kids too.

So, why am I so convinced that boundaries are healthy? Because God is the one who established boundaries. Creation is an ordered environment because of the boundaries that He established. I won’t get into details about the life of Job in this post (you can read a summary of the book of Job HERE) but God speaks to him starting in Chapter 38. And the first thing He addresses with Job is boundaries, specifically those in the physical world.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? Who kept the sea inside its boundaries as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and wrapped it in thick darkness? For I locked it behind barred gates, limiting its shores. I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’ – Job 38:4-11

We learn from that text that boundaries are created to keep order and for our protection. Imagine a world where the ocean has no limit; a world where He didn’t say “Here your proud waves must stop!” I don’t think we want to imagine that world because I’m yet to hear of the person who looks forward to a flood.

So Why Can’t We Establish Healthy Boundaries?

The past affects the future but does not have to determine it is something I firmly believe. Stated another way, your history brought you to where you are but does not have to decide where you go. Coming to terms with why we do what we do is a crucial part of being a connected parent.

Your history brought you to where you are but does not have to decide where you go. Click To Tweet

Most of us learn two lessons from our parents; how to do things and how to not do things. This reality will inform our ability and desire to set healthy boundaries…or not. If you had emotionally unavailable parents growing up (I won’t get into attachment styles here) one of two things happened, you set out on a quest to gain their approval, or you lost interest in trying to get their approval and stopped trying. Neither of those positions will allow you to set healthy boundaries. If you are still seeking approval you won’t risk upsetting your family so you won’t establish. If you gave up on gaining approval you’ll build a wall every time a boundary needs to be established.

Here’s an example, your kids don’t do well with unannounced guests, but you have family close by. You have three options. One, say nothing and let them come over unannounced whenever they please. That’s not good because you placed their feelings above your kids. Two, you can tell them that they may only come over when invited. That’s unnecessarily harsh. Or three, tell them that they need to let you know if they are coming over before they head over. For those who don’t respect boundaries, only option one will work for them, but that doesn’t mean that you need to take that option.

Do It for the Kids

So why should we work to establish healthy boundaries? Why should we do the hard work necessary to come to terms with who we are? Simple really, we have children. The day we welcomed our kids home we promised them that we would protect their story. Some of the most difficult boundaries we had to draw were related to our kid’s stories. There are details that we know but are their privilege to share. There are times when that simple truth wasn’t so simple to communicate because people feel like you are shutting them out if you don’t share everything. That is simply not true, our kids need us to stand our ground for them.

That does not mean that we can shut people out. We have to explain why the boundary needs to be established. Those we are in relationship with deserve to know why we have established a boundary. Explaining the need behind your decision will go a long way to building a healthy relationship even when boundaries are necessary.

One of the promises we made to our kids the day they came home is that we would serve as the guardians of their story until they were at a place where they could do it for themselves. That’s our responsibility

That Sounds Good, But What Now?

Establishing healthy boundaries gives you an opportunity to practice you connected parenting skills. This is an opportunity to practice outside of the moment if you need to. This is an opportunity to find your voice. This is an opportunity to give choices. This is an opportunity to compromise. This is an opportunity to grow.

Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Empowered to Connect Parent Training

One of the most important things we’ve learned as parents is the difference between being safe and feeling safe. For many years we thought that they were the same thing, but we have come to understand and live the difference. Our kids need us to create an environment of felt safety for them. It is an essential part of their healing.

In order to create an environment of felt safety we need to:

  • Be active in our own healing
  • Examine our lives and start to process our hurts and hang-ups
  • Realize what our triggers are
  • Own our stuff

But that is not enough. We need to practice mindfulness in the following areas:

  • How we speak to our kids
  • Our non-verbal communication
  • Our emotional health

As participants in the Empowered to Connect Parent Training, you will be equipped with a holistic understanding of your child’s needs and development while empowering you with the tools and strategies to effectively meet those needs, build trust, and help your child heal and grow.

The training is taught from a Christian perspective and focuses on a wide range of topics and relevant issues, including helping you understand the impact of your child’s history, what you bring to the parent-child relationship, the fundamentals of attachment, the impact of fear, and the importance of meeting your child’s sensory processing, nutritional and other physiological needs.

If would like to participate in our Spring semester training, you can get more information as well as a registration link HERE. Visit www.empoweredtoconnect.org for helpful resources that you can use starting today.

ETCParentTraining

2016 Tapestry Adoption and Foster Care Conference

TapCon2016-Email

The 2016 Tapestry Adoption & Foster Care Conference will be held October 21 & 22 at Irving Bible Church. Last year we went BACK TO BASICS, this year we decided to go BEYOND THE BASICS. We will feature TBRI trained professionals, Empowered to Connect Parent Trainers, Dr. Mandy Howard, and Dr. David Cross, co-author of The Connected Child.

We will offer three workshops on Friday, October 21, for families, professionals, and ministry leaders. The conference on Saturday, October 22, will consist of 12 breakout sessions, one lunch session, and two general sessions (AM and PM).

Detailed information regarding speakers, sessions, and workshops, as well as registration, can be found at tapestryconference.org. Please email us at tapestry@irvingbible.org if you have any questions. We look forward to seeing you in October.

Repair Your Mistakes: Apologize to Your Kids

Father and daughter hugging

The Bible says the children are a blessing from the Lord. That’s a big, sobering statement because as their parents we have the responsibility to raise them well. There are days when I feel like I get it wrong and I know I have to repair the relational wounds and distance I created.

Let’s look at parenting from 10,000 feet for a minute. Most parents have their feet fairly firmly planted in one of the following camps. They are either:

  1. Do as I say parents (lead by instruction)
  2. Do as I do parents (lead by example)

I realize that I am painting with a pretty broad brush here and that it is possible, and healthy, to have your feet in both camps. Think of it this way; do as I say parenting is rooted in structure while do as I do parenting is rooted in nurture, and we know that our kids need both structure and nurture from us.

In the interest of full disclosure, this post is probably going to be difficult for the do as I say crowd. I get that it is often, if not always, the path of least resistance to be a do as I say parent. However, following the path of least resistance is not always what our kids need from us. What they need is for us to meet them where they are and to build trust through a stronger connection.

One of the best things we can do for our children is apologize to them when we have acted poorly and harmed the relationship. The simple act of saying “I’m sorry for what I did” and “will you please forgive me?” can be difficult at times, but modeling humility and repairing mistakes are two of the best investments we can make.

How do we teach our children to apologize? Simple, we apologize to them.

Most of us will usually just say “I’m sorry” when we wrong someone because it’s easy and almost dismissive, but a real apology requires you to humble yourself, admit what you did wrong and ask for forgiveness.

We found that saying sorry was the easiest part of the equation. Learning to say what we were sorry for was hard to remember at first, but with enough practice we started to get it.

The second part required a lot more effort. Asking for forgiveness is hard on its own, but asking for forgiveness from a six-year-old because you yelled at them for running in the house is harder still. “Why should I apologize to her? She was running in the house” I would tell myself. But then it occurred to me…I’m the adult and I have the greater responsibility and the higher standard to live up to.

It’s important to remember that apologizing is a two step process. In order for things to be made right, forgiveness must be specifically asked for and granted.

Here is an example of a dialogue between my six-year-old daughter and me after I yelled at her:

Me: I’m sorry that I yelled at you.
Her: Thank you daddy.
Me: Will you please forgive me?
Her: Of course I will.
Me: Thank you sweetie.

That was a lot simpler to write than it was to do for the first time or the second time…or the third time. I think you get the point. But if you will do it sincerely and consistently it will become easier.

We have to model apologizing for our children. The only way they will learn how to apologize is if we show them.

This post appears on the Tapestry blog and One Big Happy Home.

Tapestry Conference 2015

Save the Date

The 2015 Tapestry Adoption & Foster Care Conference will be held October 23 & 24 at Irving Bible Church. This year’s theme is Back to Basics and sees the return of Dr. Karyn Purvis to our conference.

Dr. Purvis is the founder and Rees-Jones Director of the TCU Institute of Child Development and a passionate advocate for “children from hard places.” She is the co-author of the best-selling book, The Connected Child, a former foster parent, a mother of three sons, and a grandmother of nine, two of whom are adopted. Her life’s passion is to empower children to overcome trauma so they may thrive and reach their fullest potential in life. Tapestry has a long standing relationship with Dr. Purvis and we are thrilled that she will be with us in October.

Friday, October 23 will feature workshops for professionals, parents, church and ministry staff. Saturday, October 24 will feature morning and afternoon general sessions with breakout sessions in between.

CEU’s are available for professionals and training hours are available for parents.

Registration opens August 1.

#TapCon15