All Kids Need is Love (and by Love I Mean Structure)

First, a disclaimer: I am not a child psychologist or therapist. I’m just a mom and foster caregiver who has become somewhat obsessed with the lay scholarship of child development in order to understand the children who come and go from our home. I read books and articles in order to discover what our kids need from us in order to thrive. I listen to conference talks and podcasts, culling ideas for helping our kids flourish in our care and beyond. And I study children—in our home, of course, but also at my children’s school, at church, in the grocery store, and pretty much everywhere else I have a chance to interact with children.

All of my “studying” of late has brought me to this one idea, and it pretty much guides my every (good) parenting move:

What kids need more than anything is love, and what feels most like love to a child is structure.

The reason for this is rooted in science. People who study these things have concluded that there are four stages of cognitive development in children:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage: Birth through about 2 years. During this stage, children learn about the world through their senses and the manipulation of objects.
  2. Preoperational Stage: Ages 2 through 7. During this stage, children develop memory and imagination. They are also able to understand things symbolically, and to understand the ideas of past and future.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage: Ages 7 through 11. During this stage, children become more aware of external events, as well as feelings other than their own. They become less egocentric, and begin to understand that not everyone shares their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.
  4. Formal Operational Stage: Ages 11 and older. During this stage, children are able to use logic to solve problems, view the world around them, and plan for the future.

    Source: LearningRx.com

Unfortunately, when a child is born into the circumstances that often lead to being placed in foster care—neglect and/or physical abuse—it is not at all uncommon for them to have missed out on the nurturing and input that form the stages. For this reason, they are often what we call “delayed.” A child begins learning emotional regulation as an infant gazing into her mother’s eyes, reading her expressions and imitating them. Without that input and interaction, her little brain misses out on some vital brain development. This prevents her from moving into the next stage. This is evident in a six- or seven- or ten-year-old who still puts everything in his mouth like a one-year-old exploring his world, or who demonstrates a total lack of ability to play imaginatively. This is evident in a twelve-year-old who is not able to see past himself, or a fourteen-year-old who still responds to frustration with toddler-like whining and even full-blown tantrums.

I’ve seen this so very much, in my own kids and in the stories I hear from others, and before I understood the stages of brain development and the role neglect and abuse play in stunting that development, I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated by children who didn’t “act their age.”

My solution to the hard challenge of being a caregiver for children who have suffered early childhood neglect/abuse/trauma? Structure.

A structured life provides a child with a sense of safety and predictability. A structured life forms new habits in a child, which forms new brain paths. Repetition reconditions a child’s brain, and while no one can go back in time and protect a child from the things they lost or suffered, we can begin today, through being intentional about offering them a structured life, to teach them new things—to re-train their brain with new neuropathways that they missed out on the first time around.

And when we do this, over time, the child begins to feel a sense of being loved. Because for a child, love feels like stability. Love feels like positive predictability. Love feels like control. Love feels like safety. “I know what’s coming at me. We don’t have a lot of surprises here. I can predict what’s happening, and that makes me feel safe.” From that place of feeing safe, a child’s brain can begin to develop those vital cognitive pathways.

Here are a few ideas of what structure can look like.

  1. Consistent sleep. Kids need to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time as often as possible. It is not good or helpful for children to be inconsistent with their sleep habits, because it affects the health of their brain (ours too!) and emotional regulation. And a child lacks the executive function to be able to decide for himself when and how much he needs to sleep. That’s the job of his caregiver.
  2. Healthy diet. “You are what you eat,” is a phrase I remember hearing as a child, and truer words have never been spoken. We need to provide our kids with healthy options and minimize the junk they have access to. As I put it, “I want to get good stuff into my kids’ bodies.” There are some foods that are known to contribute to healthy brain development—protein, fiber, and healthy fats seem to be key.
  3. Daily physical rigor. Kids need to run. Plain and simple, kids need to move their bodies and explore their world. When a toddler is begging for his mom’s attention and his mom hands him a smartphone over and over again, his body and brain are not getting the input and interaction he needs for healthy brain development. Kids need to run and experience the interaction of play—rolling a ball back and forth or playing tag or getting the feedback of “watch this, Mom!” all contribute to healthy brain function.
  4. Reading together every day. Bedtime Books is one of the best habits you can give your child, for so very many reasons. Reading to your child accomplishes so much! Physical touch (cuddling on a couch or bed as you look at a book together), language development (all those words! Formed into correct syntax and grammar!), and imagination formation (stories, characters, beautiful imagery) are just the start of what reading together does for a child.
  5. A consistent schedule. Kids thrive in predictability. As early as two or three years old, children can understand the rhythms of life—daily and weekly schedules. Daily: get up, eat breakfast, get dressed, brush our teeth, go to the car for school or preschool or church. Weekly: go to school some days, go to church or temple or the mosque some days, have a Saturday at home. Even with the unstructured nature of weekends and holidays, we can (and do) create “holiday structure,” keeping to our sleep and diet practices as we communicate the plan for the day (this morning we’re going to be home. You can play together. After lunch, we’re going to clean the house together. You will be responsible for your bedroom (following your bedroom cleaning plan—structure!). Tonight we will have pizza for dinner and watch a movie.) Simply giving them the plan for an unusual day can make the difference between successful emotional regulation or chaos and emotional meltdowns.

Is this fool-proof? Not at all. Kids will still have their moments. So will adults. But in my experience, and based on my research, we’re on to something when we begin to embrace the vital importance of structure for our children and do our best to offer it to them—with (and because of) love.

One way we practice structure in our home is through the use of visual charts. I have made a few of the ones we use available here to give you ideas or a starting point. Feel free to print and use them!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

3 Things to Do Before Becoming a Foster Parent

Back when we were in the process of becoming licensed to be foster parents, we were focused on the checklist of things we needed to do to prepare. Smoke detectors in every bedroom? Check. Medicines locked up and alcohol out of reach? Check and check. Crib slats the correct distance apart? Yes. Mattress thick enough? Yes.

The list went on.

And on.

And on.

Now, nearly six years and many children and family systems later, I realize that there are a few things that are not part of the required preparation for becoming a foster parent—but should be.

I shared about them in this video, but if you prefer to read rather than watch, here they are:

Listen to, read, and watch resources that amplify the voices of Former Foster Youth (FFY) and Adoptees.

As a new foster parent, I sought out other foster parents, therapists, teachers, social workers, and more in my endeavor to learn and grow, but it was years before I discovered resources that came from the perspective of children in care and/or adoptees (who have a lot in common). Unfortunately, without learning from FFY and adoptees, I was only one side of the story.

As the saying goes, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But once I started listening to those voices—as I sat on foster care panels and attended workshops and conferences—I realized how vital it is for foster parents to gain some insight into how things look and feel to the kids in their care.

Here are a few places to start. There are more. Some are really hard to read. Some will make you very defensive. You’ll wan to say, “Not all foster parents! Not us!” Don’t do that. Just listen, and try to do better.

Befriend foster parents and offer them support.

My brother and sister-in-law were foster parents for a time. Some cousins of my husband were as well, and we knew of some friends-of-friends who were foster parents. However, we never really discussed foster parenting with them before becoming foster parents, and even then, we didn’t reach out to them much.

What it took me nearly two years to learn, though, was that having friends—close friends—who were also foster parents was huge as we made our way through the ups and downs. Having people we could talk with and confide in was so important in not only surviving but finding a way to thrive in some of the crazy seasons and emotional rollercoasters we found ourselves on!

If you are thinking of becoming a foster parent, start finding support groups to attend. Offer to provide childcare or babysit for a foster family. Get involved before you have children placed in your home.

Study positive parenting practices and learn about trauma-informed parenting.

I meet so many foster parents who are caught completely off guard by the challenges of being the primary caregiver for children who have trauma in their backgrounds. Traditional parenting strategies, which are often dependent on punitive measures for addressing behavioral challenges, simply do not work.

Even if you have raised children of your own, even if you are sure that you know what you’re doing, if you’re planning to parent children with trauma in their past, and you are not equipped with positive, empowering, connecting parenting practices, it will not work.

Do yourself a favor and get some training now. I highly recommend Positive Parenting Solutions,* which is not specific to trauma-informed parenting, but is rooted in empowering kids and helping them experience ongoing positive connection with their parents/caregivers. Other resources can be found at Empowered to Connect and the Karyn Purvis Instititute of Child Development. I have also listed a number of books on my web site, including my favorite, Beyond Consequence, Logic and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children with Severe Behaviors .*

If you are in the process of becoming a foster parent, or you’re just thinking about it, it’s not likely that anyone will tell you to do these things. However, I can tell you from experience that these suggestions are as important as checking the batteries in those smoke detectors and finding the right size lock boxes for your medicines!

My “Six Pillars” of Trauma Informed Parenting

I spent several hours on the phone this week with a family that is in crisis. They are brand new to trauma-informed parenting and have reached a point of total despair. We have a mutual friend, and she thought I might be able to offer some insight to help them find their footing in the midst of a terrible storm.

Over the course of our conversations—I spoke with a parent and grandparents involved in caring for a highly dysregulated child—I tried to distill everything I know about trauma-informed parenting down to a few bullet points for them (which were fleshed out a lot during the hours we spent on the phone).

After we spoke, I wrote them an email in which I recapitulated what I shared. As I did that, I realized that, in my experience over the years caring for children who are often dysregulated because of early childhood trauma and neglect, attachment disruptions, and other neuro-atypical challenges (Autism Spectrum Disorder/ASD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder/ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder/ODD, etc.), this is what it all boils down to.

These are the pillars that hold up a trauma-informed parent.

The thing to note about pillars is that a structure can stand for a while if one of these is broken or missing. But without all of these in place, the structure is weakened and vulnerable to breaking down.

This is certainly the case for me. I have to be diligent in assessing how I’m doing pretty frequently—at least once a week. I need to look over the landscape of my life and interactions with my kids and see if the pillars are all standing. When they’re not, it is only a matter of time before a breakdown begins to occur. I snap. I scream. I say things I later regret. I scare the very children I am trying to heal. When things fall apart—or, more accurately, when I fall apart—I can always look back and see where one of these pillars was neglected or missing.

Here are the pillars.

Each one warrants a long conversation (and I have done YouTube videos about many of these concepts if you want to hear more.) This is also the main substance we discuss in The Flourishing Foster Parent (on live calls and in the recordings available to members after the fact).

When you are parenting a child who has experienced trauma and is acting out, defiant, or otherwise challenging, keep these things in mind:

  • EMPOWERMENT. Look for ways to empower the child throughout the day. Offer a “decision-rich environment.” Instead of, “Get your shoes on and go to the car,” try, “Which shoes do you want to put on, the black ones or your sneakers?” and “Do you want to sit in the front or the back seat?” or “Do you want to buckle yourself or do you want me to buckle you?” or “Do you want to listen to music or just have it quiet?”
  • CONNECTION. Spend time each day (10-15 min or so) on “Special Time” (or whatever you want to call it). This is one-on-one interaction between one child and one caregiver. During Special Time, the child gets to pick an activity (within reason) to do one-on-one. Playing Uno, a favorite video game, going to a playground, giving her a manicure, cooking, painting, etc. Let her choose the activity (again, this points to empowerment) and she gets your full attention during that time (connection).
  • COMPASSION and EMPATHY for this hard season the child is in. “I know how hard this is and am so sorry you’re having to go through this. What would make it easier for you today?” When I have said this to a child who is struggling, the responses have included things like, “I want you to hold me,” or “I want you to play with me,” or “I don’t want to go to school” or simply, “I’m sad.” In my experience, a child will rarely offer, “I miss my mom,” but if I say, “Tell me something you remember about your mom,” or “Tell me something you miss about your mom,” it seems to tap into a felt need the child did not have words or feel permission to say. Reminding a child, “You’re safe here. We love you and we are so glad you’re here” can be really soothing to a child (once they are calm enough to hear you!). Support her need to connect with her mom (if this is an issue). In my experience, not all children in foster care or adoption want to connect with their parents. But often they do. Even if you end up adopting a child, it’s still important to periodically acknowledge their feelings about their first mom or dad. Affirm the good in their mom (or first mom) and please, please, please—avoid criticizing the child’s parent! This goes for children in foster care and children going through a divorce. To the child, that parent is part of them—half of who they are. If you are criticizing their parent, it will feel like you are criticizing them. If contact with a parent is not possible, suggest making a video (and you be as enthusiastic as you can about it). “Your mom is really beautiful, and you have her eyes!” “Why don’t you tell her about your trip to the zoo last week!” “Let’s make her a cooking video!”
  • BUILD YOUR SUPPORT COMMUNITY. Find and join a support group. Get your child and yourself into counseling with a trauma-informed therapist. Make time to hone your trauma-informed parenting tools by reading articles, watching videos, or listening to podcasts (or join The Flourishing Foster Parent!) Find a few people who are also foster parents and connect with them regularly. I have a few people I text with to share both the failures and triumphs of the week. There is something so powerful about being in relationship with others who get it.
  • MODEL EMOTIONAL REGULATION, especially when a child is dysregulated. This takes hard work and preparation, and, for me, this is the hardest part of parenting a child who is frequently dysregulated, because I can get dysregulated too!! This point actually ties closely to the next, which is…
  • PRACTICE GOOD SELF CARE. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for enduring the challenges of trauma informed parenting. Get your sleep (even if it means housework gets put off.) Exercise your body. Eat to fuel your body, not just to soothe your emotions. Stay hydrated. Make sure you have at least one hobby or interest outside of parenting, and make time for that. Get together with a friend for coffee, or at least catch up by phone, at least once a week. Pray. Practice mindful breathing and gratitude. Stay organized and maintain some margin in your schedule to allow for the unexpected. Give yourself time for a long shower or bubble bath a few times a week. Listen to music that feeds your soul. Dance with your kids. Laugh more. Find a way to get some space/time alone—even if it’s just taking a walk or running to the grocery store by yourself.

These are my “six pillars of trauma-informed parenting.” Like anything that is held up by pillars, your life can stand for a while without all of these in place. But you will be much stronger and more secure—and less at risk of burning out—if you are evaluating each of these areas and working to ensure they are solidly in place.

Here are a few more things I recommend:

Positive Parenting Solutions.* This program is based in empowering and connecting with your child, and offers thirty-seven “tools” for managing your children’s behaviors that are not traditional discipline or consequences (which don’t really work for children who are easily dysregulated). Some of the tools I use most are walking away from a power struggle, either-or statements, decision rich environment, special time, written schedules, etc. All of them are great, though. This is the parenting program I swear by (and have become an affiliate of—I’m such a believer in these concepts!)

Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors* (Book). We just finished our summer book study on this in The Flourishing Foster Parent, and I am already going back to review and refresh myself on the content. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s so important to be reminded of how to respond, because, at least for me, it is NOT intuitive!

Lastly, I have two videos to share, in which I share some fundamental concepts for trauma-informed parents to bear in mind:

If you are new to trauma-informed parenting (a new foster parent or parenting a child struggling with the effects of divorce or some other trauma), or you have been at it for a while but are stuck in some unhelpful cycles, I hope this helps.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Let me know if this rings true for you. What would you add? What are the pillars holding your life up?

*Affiliate link