Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I started our foster parenting journey, I knew that I was naive. I didn’t know how the system worked; I didn’t know any of the “whys.” The importance of reunification and families of origins were (sadly, as I look back on it) a hard pill for me to swallow. I knew that I had a lot to learn—and I felt fine about that.
What I didn’t know, and it took me quite some time to really come to terms with this, is that I wasn’t just naive. I was cocky. In retrospect, I can see that I thought I’d be “Foster Super Dad.” I had two biological kids already in my home; I was killing it! Why wouldn’t I do the same as a foster parent? If you’re laughing at me now, that’s fair.
To put it plainly, when I began my journey, I felt sure that I had already developed all of the parenting skills I would need to provide excellent care to kids who were coming from very difficult places. This did not turn out to be true.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The most disappointing revelation of my adult life was that I simply wasn’t prepared to give the kids that the foster system brought into my house what they needed to thrive. I was the problem. I had a hammer, but these kids needed a whole new set of tools. Tools that I didn’t even know existed. And that’s a bitter pill, isn’t it?
A Change Is Gonna Come
In hindsight, my entire philosophy of caregiving needed to be transformed. However, the first signs that a change was necessary came in the way I approached expectations and discipline. In the first few years of providing foster care, I was continually surprised by the way that kids would not meet my expectations for obedience, timeliness, tidiness, respect, nutrition, the amount of time it takes to put shoes on and leave the house, the sort of language we use around grandma, or any number of other things.
When I was not getting what I expected from the kids in my care, I’d say plainly what I wanted. Then, when I didn’t get it, I’d add some consequences and start doubling down: “Go to your room for 5 minutes! No? 10 minutes! Oh, it’s like that? 1,000 minutes!” It was absolutely shocking how ineffective this was.
Every day I would take out all of my authoritarian, high-expectation, high-structure tools and go to work. But I was building something that was unstable and ugly. The tools were not serving me any longer. I was losing. Nobody feels good about who they are when they’re engaged in these pointless power struggles. I certainly didn’t. Things were not going well.
Revelation One: There Is a Problem. The Problem Is Me.
“What if I’m not the world’s greatest dad?” There it is. The shocking, disappointing revelation that changed my life. The struggles I had with children in the foster care system forced me to humble myself. Recognizing that my default set of tools were not working set me on a path to find tools that would work. And there is good news, friends. I did take that path. I am better now than I was then, and I’m getting better every day. But only because I got to a point where I recognized that a change was necessary—not for the kids I was giving care to, but for me.
During the process of being humbled, I did what a lot of us do. I started looking around for help. I talked to other foster and adoptive parents. I read books. I went to seminars. And at some point, I heard about Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®). I wasn’t ready.
When I first heard the TBRI philosophy and tools, I outright rejected them. They felt upside down—totally different than every tool that I was using. (Mind you, my tools were not serving me well at this point!)
I can’t say for sure if I started trying the TBRI method sincerely or ironically. I have to admit there is a chance I was looking to show that these tools would fail, so I could go back to my default dad mode. But, from a low point in my parenting journey, I had another revelation.
Revelation Two: Something Has to Change—Me. I Have to Change.
Before I was living with a trauma-informed lens, before my philosophy of parenting was transformed, I just tried on the ideas. I gave them a half-hearted test run. Out of desperation, mostly. And, low and behold, this totally new, totally “backwards” method worked. My relationship with my kids improved immediately. The amount of chaos, frustration, and outright anger in my house dropped significantly. In part, because it turns out I was causing a lot of that frustration and exhibiting a lot of that anger myself!
For the first time in a long time, I truly felt like I was offering the kind of care that I really wanted to offer. Maybe I couldn’t be Superdad. Superman arrived fully formed with all of the tools in the world. Superman is invincible. Superman doesn’t grow or change. But maybe I could be Batman, an ordinary guy who tries really hard. And I’m cool with that because everyone knows Batman is better than Superman. Batdad!
Over time, as I adopted more of the tools, did more of the research, and kept my mind and heart open to change, my life and my family were transformed. That’s not hyperbole. I mean that sincerely. I’m still growing, and it’s hard work—but I can say honestly that as a father, I’ve got my hands on the right tools for my family. So, let’s take a quick minute to talk about the tools that I discovered!
Revelation Three: “When You Connect To The Heart Of A Child, Everything Is Possible” –Dr. Karyn Purvis
TBRI is a whole galaxy of ideas, quotes, tools, and research. It’s a rabbit hole, take a dive—you’ve got Google! The Texas Christian University’s website is a great place to find TBRI source material. They also operate a fantastic podcast called The TBRI Podcast; you can find it on any podcast platform. There is no way this little piece can communicate the ideas that transformed my life over the years that I lived them out, but we can start with a few basic principles.
Trauma Has Biological Effects on Our Kids
A lot of children that we work with have overactive amygdalas. They are catapulted into survival behaviors on a hair trigger (like fight, flight, freeze, fawn). Simple awareness that our kids may be literally “out of their minds” (aka, their ability to think rationally has been overtaken by their survival instincts) when we’re trying to teach, correct, or direct them helps us approach them with more empathy and understanding, and helps us avoid unnecessary conflicts and power struggles.
Caregivers Have Context
Mindfulness tools help us remember that we don’t enter into relationships with the kids we care for as blank slates. We have buttons, and you know this because your kids know just what they are and how to push them! We bring stress, frustration, anger, and exhaustion from other parts of our lives into our interaction with our children.
For me, this looks like bedtime grumpiness. I am the worst version of myself when I’m trying to get my kids to bed. Not because of anything they’ve done. Sometimes they just want to cuddle! But I am tired, and the two-hour span of time between their bedtime and my bedtime is my night-owl sacred space. I need it to recharge. If I bark at my kids during bedtime, that’s probably my stuff not theirs. Simple awareness of our own context can help us maintain a healthy perspective on ourselves and our interactions. But please also be kind to yourself—empathy is a two-way street!
My “default context” had me putting the vast majority of my time, energy, and hopes in a parenting strategy built on a foundation of discipline. As my discipline tools began to fail me, I naturally turned to other, ineffective, tools for correcting behavior (things like bribery or “doubling down” on punishments).
My new, more thoughtful, and trauma-informed lens is not built on a base of discipline, punishment, or correction. The basic building block of my current parenting strategy is relationships—most of my time, energy, and hope is put into building caring, trusting, and loving relationships with the kids in my care. Even when that (occasionally) means setting aside some of my discipline and correction expectations.
With relationships as the base of the pyramid, I’m able to build toward discipline in a more healthy and well-rounded way. I often make a pit stop between these relational tools and disciplinary action where I try to discover if there are any structural issues that may be causing behavior issues (are my kids tired, hungry, thirsty, do they have sensory overload?). Often, addressing these needs helps correct or redirect behavior before disciplinary action is necessary.
We know that disciplinary action will always be part of the caregiver’s toolbox. And my new outlook on parenting definitely has room for direct correction and disciplinary measures—but they are no longer the defining characteristics of my approach—they’re no longer the foundation. Sometimes the issue is a nail, and we need a hammer, but it can’t be all hammers, all the time. Batman has a whole tool belt, right?! Thor’s just got a hammer!
So, let’s talk shop for a minute. How can we apply, broadly speaking, a trauma-informed lens to our caregiving?
Three Tools to Try Today
Deep Breathing, Butterfly
If a kid in your care has flipped their lid (meaning their survival instincts have taken over their rational brain), if they’re in survival mode, if logic isn’t helping you get past a tantrum or through a power struggle, there’s still something to try.
Ask them to stand straight up and lift their arms out beside them slowly (like they’re flying). While they lift their arms, ask them to take a slow, deep breath—get that breath all the way to the bottom of the belly. Then when their wings have gone all the way up, have them flap them downward, slowly, and exhale slowly. Try that three or four times and see if it doesn’t get a child back in a place where connection and conversation can happen.
Did your kids’ tantrum make you flip your lid? I get it. It happens. Don’t go in there out of your mind and blow everything up. Maybe you should take some deep breaths first before engaging. That’s mindfulness.
Tracking emotions can really help your family. My house uses an “engine plate” (google TBRI engine plate), where we note if we are tired, calm, or too wound up. A lot of families I know have an emotion chart in their home, similar to a doctor’s pain chart, with a bunch of pictures that represent emotional states. Constantly referencing tools like this helps the whole family identify how they feel. This is a mindfulness tool for everyone! Knowing how we feel helps us approach situations (especially conflict) in a healthier way!
One way to increase trust and connection is by reinforcing the idea that you will provide care for the kids you work with. Remember, this has not been true of every adult they interact with. A “yes bin” is a basket of snacks, toys, Band-Aids, gum, mints, and fidgets. The idea is that it is full of things that you will always feel okay about giving to your kids. Any time a kid asks for something from a yes bin, you say “yes!” The child has to ask—this is about giving them voice and demonstrating that healthy adults will help meet their needs. But if a child asks, they receive. For all of the “no’s” that we have to offer our kids every day, it’s nice to have a way to bank a few yeses.
Another World Is Possible
Listen. I’m middle-aged, white, and male. I was born and raised in a culture that offered me a tremendous amount of power and privilege. The idea that Superdad could say a thing and expect his wonderful children to do that thing (and quickly) was passed to me from a dozen generations of highly authoritarian guys just like me. When all of those tools that my culture and family of origin handed me stopped working, I was forced to change. And I’m better because of it. And if I, even as a middle-aged man, am capable of change, you are too. We can be better, and that’s good news.
*Originally published in the North American Council on Adoptable Children’s AdoptTalk Newsletter. Shared by Families Are Forever with permission.
Tyler Fuller is an adoptive parent, TBRI Practitioner, pastor, and water sports enthusiast from the panhandle of Florida. Learn more about TBRI at Texas Christian University‘s webpage or on The TBRI Podcast.