Today on YouTube, I am sharing about a concept that every parent will deal with at some point in time, whether they know it or not. It’s called “restraint collapse,” and it is the source of many struggles for foster youth and foster parents alike.
It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people. We push ourselves to not be snarly, crabby people where doing so might have seriously negative consequences like losing our jobs, getting sent to the principal’s office, or missing sandbox time. How many times during the day do you wish you could just tell someone off or walk away and cry in the bathroom? But we don’t – we do what we need to in order to “be good” or keep the peace. After we’ve don’t that all day, we get to the point where we just don’t have the energy to keep this restraint, and it feels like a big bubble that needs to burst.
While Nair offers this concept in relation to the after-school meltdowns many parents deal with, I think the phrase “restraint collapse” and the way she describes what is going on is a perfect way to understand what is happening in many children in foster care. They have to hold it together in a new home with a new family. They often have to hold it together in a new school setting (most of the school-aged foster youth in my home had to change schools mid-school-year). They have to hold it together during family visitation, sitting in a small visitation center or public space for hours at a time so they can see their parents and other family members. Eventually, as Nair says, they get to the point where they just don’t have the energy to keep this restraint, and it feels like a big bubble that needs to burst.
A common phrase in the foster care world is “the end of the honeymoon period.” In fact, I used it in this post before revising my perspective for this post. When a child is first placed in a foster home, things look fine for a bit. The child is on his or her best behavior, as are the foster parents. But after a time—perhaps a few days, perhaps a week, even a bit longer—everyone settles in, starts to feel a bit comfortable, and stops trying so hard not to rock the boat. Kids begin to test boundaries or just let their big feelings out, parents grow irritable and impatient, and pretty soon, a volcano erupts.
A better term for this phenomena is “restraint collapse,” or perhaps, “new placement restraint collapse.” While “the end of the honeymoon period” is very foster-parent centric (it sure doesn’t feel like a honeymoon to the child!), “restraint collapse” is much more accurate and validates what is actually happening to the child: they have tried as hard as they can for as long as they can, but they cannot hold it together any longer.
Of course, a new placement is not the only time that a child will experience restraint collapse. In fact, that is the point of my latest video. Restraint collapse, while common for many children from stable backgrounds and secure attachments, is all the more common for children who have experienced a history of trauma, disrupted attachment, and transition.
In my experience, recognizing restraint collapse for what it is goes a long way in helping parents respond with compassion, rather than frustration, when the wheels come off. It also helps us spot our own vulnerabilities and deal with our triggers before we reach our own collapse.
While it is impossible to completely predict and circumvent circumstances that lead to restraint collapse, awareness is half the battle. Once we are aware, we can take steps to predict and plan for those challenging moments. In addition to the video below, I also produced “5 Tips for Anticipating & Responding to Restraint Collapse.” This video is available on Patreon.
One of the biggest misconceptions I had as a new foster parent was that the children who came to my home would know they could trust me right away.
Now that I’m six years along in my journey, I know how completely wrong I was. When a child has been through trauma or neglect, their ability to trust is deeply affected. And if I have learned one thing in all of this, it’s this:
Trust takes time.
It can take some kids years to feel safe trusting an adult or caregiver again. But there are things we can do, things we must do, to help them heal and know that they are safe and we are trustworthy.
Keep showing up.
Consistently showing up is the #1 trust factor for our kids. When they wake up in the morning and we’re there, when they come for breakfast and it’s there, when they wet their pants and we show up with clean clothes and a warm bath, when school gets out and we’re there, when they get off the bus and we’re there with a snack, when they get in trouble and we come, reminding them that, even if we don’t like their actions we still love them, we are building trust.
When dinner shows up on the table night after night, and we try to always include some food they like (even as we are also encouraging them to try new things), we are laying bricks on the foundation of trust. When they cry out in the night and we come to comfort them, when we mess up and come to them with an apology and effort to make things right (remember Rupture and Repair?), when we show up for Parent-Teacher Conferences, when the guitar lesson ends and our vehicle is waiting out front, trust is strengthened.
Show your children that you see and hear them.
Spending time one-on-one every day with your child doing something they choose is a great way to let your child know that you see and hear them. We call this “Special Time” in our house. Reading books they choose, playing a game they pick, taking a walk, watching a “show” they put together, or just sitting and talking, asking them, “What do you think about ______?” are some of the best ways I’ve found to help my kids feel seen and heard. So are paying attention to things your kids are into and showing some interest as well: Minecraft, rap music, Barbies, and the band Mudhoney are all things I am not personally interested in, but my kids are, so I have become familiar with each of these things as a means of connecting with my kids.
Put on your “Advocate” hat.
When we go to bat for our kids, we strengthen the idea that we are trustworthy. Getting extra help for them at school, getting them lessons in things they love (music, dance, gymnastics, driver’s ed), sitting with them in the principal’s office when they got into a fight, listening to their side of the story when conflict arises, finding them a therapist they really like, advocating with teachers, social workers, attorneys, victim’s rights advocates, and other foster youth services are all ways to build trust.
Reaching out to known family members for information is another way to advocate for the emotional needs of our kids. One of my children did not have any baby pictures of himself, and when the other kids his age in our home were looking at their baby pictures, he was really bummed. I reached out to his adult biological sisters and they sent me a few really cute pictures of him as a baby. We have those in frames now, and he is thrilled. Another of my children has been asking a lot of questions about her biological mom, and when I reached out to a relative recently for information about her as a child, he was able to tell me some really neat things about what she was into, what her personality was like, and some of her personal accomplishments. When a child’s framework for understand their biological mom is that she was a drug addict who disappeared when her kids went into foster care, it’s really restorative for the kids to hear good things about her too.
Always keep your word.
This is huge. Whereas many typical kids can handle minor disappointments or changes of plans, for kids who struggle to trust, if you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t, it’s a big deal. It confirms what they have suspected—that adults cannot be trusted. I have learned to say, “The plan is…” instead of, “We will…” That way, if something comes up and we need to change, I can say, “the plan changed,” rather than saying, “We will do something” and then not doing it. I have also learned that, “I’ll do my best!” is safer than “Yes!” and that kids don’t forget a thing, so if I say I’m going to do something, they will remind me if I don’t. Case in point: yesterday, I promised my daughter she could listen to music on my iPhone before bed last night. Then we watched a movie that went long and the kids didn’t go to bed until well after 9:00 PM. She was very tired, and so was I, but just as she was drifting off to sleep, she reminded me that I had promised she could listen to my iPhone. Even though it was late, and I was “done” for the day, I let her listen to my music and stayed with her longer to keep my word. It’s that important.
Always tell the truth and do not withhold important information.
We had a recent Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call with guest Spring Hecht, a therapist and adult adoptee, who spoke with us about how, when, and how much to tell our foster and adopted children about the hard parts of their stories. The short answer is, all of it—in an age-appropriate way, of course.
Our kids are relying on us to help them know their stories. As they grow in awareness of their life, and the circumstances of their adoption, they will naturally be curious and want to know everything they can. We are the gatekeepers of that information, and we have to give it all to them: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our kids need to know they can trust us to not hold anything back from them and to tell them everything we know of their story, at least by the time they are heading into puberty (if not sooner!)
If a social worker is on the phone and your child asks a question about it, stop what you’re doing and explain what the phone call was about. Keep your child in the loop about his or her case (again, in an age-appropriate way), and if you don’t know something, tell them the truth—don’t make something up. “I don’t know how long you’ll be here, but we’re going to do all we can to make sure your time with us is good!” “I don’t know why your mom didn’t show up for today’s visit, sweetie. I wonder where she is too.” “I don’t know why your adoption is taking so long to finalize! It’s frustrating for me too—we can’t wait to make this official! But we have turned everything in and done all we have to do, so now we have to wait for the social workers and attorneys and judge. Then we will have a party!!” These are all things I have said to my kids at one time or another.
Try “Time In” Rather Than “Time Out”
Time Out is a well-known replacement for spanking in the parenting world. Back in the day, a kid would act out, get a swat, and move on. But when parents wanted to stop spanking their kids, they came up with Time Out. The idea is, of course, that the child is given time to think and consider their actions in a place that’s boring.
The problem is that, for kids with a history of neglect and trauma, Time Out breaks the already fragile bond of connection you’re trying to build. It also send a child who struggles to regulate themselves off to figure things out on their own, which is impossible for them.
Karyn Purvis does a fantastic job in this video of explaining the difference and why our kids need Time In more than Time Out:
I have used this approach with my kids from time to time and it is much more effective than Time Out. Bringing a beanbag chair and some books into the kitchen while I’m cooking dinner so the offending child can be with me but away from conflict has been really helpful.
That said, there are times when it is necessary to remove one child from the others. Because I have several kids, I occasionally have to remove one who is being truly unsafe or destructive to the others. In that case, the child is separated in their room or another part of the house, but either my husband or I go to them and sit with them and discuss what’s happening, rather than sending them away with no subsequent time of connecting or reflecting. The point is to communicate support and regulation and connecting.
This is a hard one sometimes, but hear me out. When a child struggles with trust, he may ask the same questions over and over again, even after you have answered them repeatedly, which can get exhausting. He may obsess over when the next meal is being served or what will be on the menu, even when you’ve assured him over and over that there is plenty of food in the house. He may hover close by when you’re on the phone, wondering if whomever is on the other end of that call is initiating a placement change. He may act out in ways that are really, really frustrating because he is so insecure and doesn’t know what to do with his feelings and wants more than anything to maintain a connection with you—even if that connection is you yelling at him to go back to his room. Stay with him! Remember that trust takes time. It can take some kids years to really know they can trust you. Don’t give up on them!
Take ownership of your mistakes and make it right.
All of the above is great, but what happens when we fail? Because darlin’—we will most certainly fail at all of this from time to time. What then?
I have found that taking ownership of my mistakes—going to my child, acknowledging when I have messed up, apologizing, recognizing the hurt I caused, and doing what I can to make it right has been a phenomenal step in building trust. Many of our kids have not seen a parent take ownership for their mistakes. Many of our kids have never experienced a parent apologizing for the wrong they’ve done. To experience that from us can be pretty radical, and an important step in building trust. (Not to mention that it is fundamental to teaching our kids how to handle it when they mess up After all, when it comes to parenting or any other form of leadership or instruction, more is caught than taught!)
Trust Takes Time
These are just some of the ways I’ve noticed help build trust between my children and me over the years. And did you hear that part? Over the years. Because when I say, “Trust takes time,” I mean lots of time. Years.
I do not do any of these things perfectly. Not by a long shot! But these are things I try to keep in mind as I stumble through the days of parenting children who bring a history of trauma, neglect, abuse, and broken attachments to the table.
What are some things you would add to this? How have you cultivated trust with your foster or adopted child?
If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.
One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.
Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.
Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).
Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.
DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).
For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!
For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.
Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,
“researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…
Are less likely to be overweight
Are more likely to eat healthy food
Perform better academically
Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
Have better relationships with their parents
This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.
There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.