Parenting is a Leadership Exercise

I was invited to speak at the Florida Foster and Adoptive Parent Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida in June. 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.

When Two Worlds Collide

When I was a child, I wanted to be an airline pilot. I thought it would be the most romantic way to spend my days floating amongst the clouds. My dad traveled for work when I was a kid and when he came home, he would go down on one knee expecting a hug and I would run up to him expecting the in-flight magazine. I couldn’t yet read, but I would find the page with the pictures of the aircraft and memorize their seating charts. I was probably the only 5-year-old who could tell you the best place to sit on an airplane.

Romantic notions of flight aside, I didn’t become a pilot because I don’t like to fly; it terrifies me. I just can’t get past the fact that I’m strapped, with a lap belt no less, to a chair in an aluminum cylinder with wings and engines 35,000 feet in the air.

I love going new places and always look forward to traveling, but my excitement usually turns into anxiety seconds after I park my car. Two things confront my senses the moment I get out of my car; the smell of jet fuel and the sound of jet engines and as I process those two things I can feel my anxiety spike. It increases again as I enter the terminal and I see the security check line. I’m probably the only person who is actually happy when they see a long, slow moving TSA security check line because that gives me a little break from my now constantly increasing anxiety.

But my freedom from anxiety doesn’t last long because the inevitable always happens and I make my way through the security checkpoint. Clearing security is significant because it’s at that point that I realize that I am going to have to board the aircraft. Arriving at the gate, boarding the plane, and sitting in my seat all cause my anxiety to increase and by the time we push back from the gate my breathing is shallow and fast. I am hot and I can feel perspiration running down my face. I’m bordering on a panic attack.

My wife gives me peace and calming essential oils and I rub it on my wrists and on the back of my neck. And then they turn at the bottom of the runway and that plane accelerates and now I’m holding on for dear life. I’ve got headphones on with loud  music and I’m reading at the same time because I just want to overwhelm my senses. As the plane takes off I can feel all of the gravity that that aircraft is fighting against, I can feel it in my chest and I can’t breathe. That’s how I fly. Some of you can relate.

A few years ago, a man about four rows in front of me choked on a flight. The person next to him quickly hit the flight attendant call button, she came and performed the Heimlich, clearing his airway. We continued on to Nashville without further incident.

When we arrived home, we picked up our kids from my parent’s house and my dad asked me about our trip. I told him about the choking incident. He immediately looked at my mom and asked her if she remembered when I choked on a plane as a small child. She recalled the time when I was two or three years old.

I asked a therapist friend of mine if my fear of flying could be related to the childhood choking incident. She immediately said yes. She explained that even though I didn’t have any explicit memories of the event, I had implicit ones. In other words, my body remembered what my mind couldn’t recall. My body had associated flying with choking, and over the years formed a narrative that bad things happen to me on airplanes. My anxiety was because my body was getting ready for something bad to happen. My body was in survival mode and trying to alert me to the coming danger.

I am happy to report that I can now actually make it onto the plane without any panic attacks. The essential oils don’t need to travel with me anymore, and I can actually take off without having to overwhelm my senses. Take-off, landing, and flying through turbulence doesn’t bother me now because I learned about a trauma from my past and with help was able to process it.

So why does that matter? We can so easily overlook our histories and focus on our kid’s stuff, but if we don’t do the work to come to terms with our own stuff, we will never fully be able to help our kids process their hurts and fears.

We recently flew to Orlando with our six children. My eight-year-old daughter sat next to me on the flight. She was very excited about going on vacation and on her first flight right until the moment she sat down. She grabbed my arm and she started sobbing when I buckled her seatbelt. I asked her why she was crying and she told me that she was scared and that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go with us. So what did I do? I employed the only coping skills I knew; I got the oils from my wife, I put her headphones on her, cranked the music, and I told her to play Minecraft.

It startled her when we pushed back from the gate. As did the safety briefing, taxiing, and accelerating. As we took off she asked me if we were flying, and I smiled and told her to look out of the window. She did and with a smile on her face declared that we were flying. I responded with a smile on my face.

The flight was very smooth until about forty-five minutes before we landed. The pilot announced that the weather was clear at our destination, but that there was a storm between us and Orlando. He said that everybody needed to sit down and to buckle their seat belts and that the flight crew needed to do the same. My anxiety level spiked…for my daughter. Then we didn’t level off, we actually went nose down and accelerated and my little girl went “whee, it’s just like a roller coaster.”

I once sat across from a flight attendant who told me that she used to be afraid of flying. She said that she realized when she was 17-years-old that she wasn’t afraid of flying; her mother was and she thought that she was supposed to be afraid too. If I had not been able to work through my issue on airplanes, think about how my daughter would view flying. If when she was stressed and she looked at her dad, I was freaking out the same way, she would hate flying.

Always be willing to do the work necessary to process your past because if you’re not willing to do the work, sometimes the hard work of coming to terms with your story, you will never be able to help your kids the way they need.

“You cannot lead a child to a place of healing if you do not know the way yourself.” – Dr. Karyn Purvis