Currently, many of us parents are taking the meaning of “work/family balance” to an entirely new level.Our children (and maybe spouses) are home and we are searching for innovative ways to continue to support our clients and pay our own bills.Additionally, we are part of a global crisis that affects us all in various ways.Anxiety is high and there are no easy answers – this is messy!Literally and figuratively – seriously, earlier today our five-year-old was sitting on top of a mound of laundry playing ABC mouse.I started to tell him to get OFF of the CLEAN LAUNDRY, but then it occurred to me that there was nowhere else to sit.Our laundry has simply taken on a life of its own around here!I just took a deep breath and headed into our bedroom for our weekly, virtual staff meeting. Deep, deep sigh.
Each day this week I have been reminded of something that has saved us time and time again in the Jobe family.We so strive to be the kind of family that engages in calm connection.Connection before correction.Relationship and connection before and above all else. . . AND we’re human.Shoot!I am just so darn imperfect – just ask those closest to me.I’m passionate.I’m direct.I’m sometimes loud.I sometimes struggle with anxiety.I can be controlling at times, and I hope that someday my children will use the words “fierce love” to describe me.As a recovering perfectionist connection not perfection is my mantra.A commitment to repair has kept our loving family intact.We regularly practice something we call do-overs – the opportunity to make repair in our relationships.The opportunity to practice doing the right thing.I hope to breathe a bit of life into what we mean by do-overs with this personal story.
A few weeks ago we had a small Super Bowl party at our house after a long day of teaching one of our Fundamentals Trainings.This means. . . I had just spent two days teaching about regulation and connection and healthy relationships . . . Then I went home. . . and started preparing dinner with our guests.Within about 15 minutes of my return home, while my back was turned and I was chopping an onion (or something) I heard my 5-year-old scream.The shrill scream of a child in pain.I felt fear and the action I took was reflexive.I experienced the kind of fear that is cued by something in the environment – my child’s scream and the realization that he was stuck in a kitchen pot (YET AGAIN!He and his sister had been stuck in said pot several times over the last week) and in pain as one of our guests tried to pull him out!This fear caused a rush of adrenaline with increased heart rate and respiration as my body naturally and immediately prepared for flight or fight. (Here you can visit a great blog about the difference between fear, anxiety, and panic and what we can do.)I did both flight and fight.I reflexively ran to my son, grabbed him by the shoulders, and screamed “I have told you to quit putting your body in this pot,” and then I safely picked up his folded body and gently shook it until the pot fell off.He was, indeed, physically safe, but I had greatly compromised his emotional safety – I had done damage to our relationship.With wide eyes, he ran to his room immediately and then started crying.At first, I went back to cutting an onion (or something) and then I felt an unconscious breath come into my body followed by a huge wave of guilt.When I went into Cooper’s room he was crying.I sat down on the bed next to him and asked if he wanted to tell me what he was sad about.He said, “You scared me (then there was a pause) and embarrassed me too.”I looked into his tear-filled eyes, put my arms around his little 5-year-old body, and said, “Oh sweetie, of course you were.I got really scared and then I yelled really loud. . . and I did that in front of our guests.”He interrupted me and said quite pragmatically, “Yes Mom you were out of self-control.”I inwardly chuckled just a bit and suggested a do-over.I said, “You are right.I was out of self-control.Do you think we could have a do-over?”He happily agreed to this – he’s done plenty of do-overs so he was thrilled for this one to be on me.
We went to the kitchen and I apologized to our guests and explained that Cooper and I needed to have a do-over.I went back to the counter and pretended to cut something.Cooper got in the pot (partially) and screamed in pain.I went to him quickly, but this time I gently grabbed his shoulders and I said with warmth, kindness, and assertiveness, “Cooper please keep your body safe.I don’t want you to get hurt because I love you so much.This is why I have asked you to stop putting your body in this pot.”I had a second before this interaction to think about how to best have a boundary and, in this case, kindly set one.I try very hard to request what I want – in this case, for Cooper to keep his body safe – instead of focusing on what I don’t want – for him to stop putting his body in this darn pot!Here’s a blog on this subject.I then gave him a little kiss on the cheek and helped him out.We had a quick discussion to review why it’s important that Cooper keep his body safe, and he made a commitment to never get in the pot again.(By the way, it hasn’t happened since.Fingers crossed!)
We then continued with our little party.Repair is more than an apology.Repair has to be experienced.We need to practice doing the right thing.Practice does not make perfect, but it is required for improvement and growth.We have to try.We have to show up.We have to be willing to make mistakes.AND we have to learn to revel in the repair.Embrace it.In NL, this is what we mean by creating brave spaces.Maybe while we’re at home during this time we can commit to practicing repair – there simply isn’t a shortage of opportunity for most of us!Practice the kind of repair that moves beyond an apology, and means that we go back and try again.This kind of repair requires grace and a commitment to connection from all involved – grace that provides space for do-overs, repair, and real healing.Deep, complete healing and profound, transformative connection.Y’all, we’ve got this!
Here is another one of our blogs that might be of interest to you during this time:
In this field, it is not uncommon to hear people answer the question “Why Horses?” with some variation of how horses help us learn how to set healthy boundaries. Is this true? Well, it depends. . .
In Natural Lifemanship we believe that horses help us learn how to build healthy, connected relationships. We teach that in order to build healthy connections we must have healthy boundaries. We also teach that the need to set boundaries is a connection issue – a connection issue that can only be addressed by seeking to build stronger connection.
Setting boundaries is certainly necessary at times to establish safety, but it is important to understand that while the setting of a boundary may establish safety it could also damage the connection. In a relationship that matters (one in which I plan to stay), it is our intent to build connection. Healthy boundaries are set by me for me, not for someone else by me. We also teach that in a healthy relationship it is important to focus on what I do want (connection), instead of focusing on what I don’t want. Typically, when a person is setting a boundary they are focused on what they don’t want, which often results in an attempt to control the other. AND when control enters the relationship, connection leaves – control of the other and connection simply cannot co-exist.
When doing TF-EAP or TI-EAL, it is important that when the subject of boundaries arises, we teach our clients how to build connection by having boundaries, rather than inadvertently teaching them to control others by setting boundaries.
Having boundaries simply put is:
I am me and you are you.
My body is my body, and I have a right to choose what happens with it
My feelings are my feelings, and I have a right to my own feelings.
My thoughts are my thoughts, and I have a right to my own thoughts
It is not my job to fix others
It is okay for others to feel any emotion – anger, sadness, rage, loneliness etc.
I don’t have to read the minds of others or anticipate their needs
It is okay to say no
I need only take responsibility for myself
Nobody has to agree with me
This is a way of being in the world and in relationships
Timothy was a 9-year-old male participating in Trauma Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP). He had a history of abuse and neglect. He struggled socially and was often bullied in school. He was in the foster care system. In 5 years he had lived in 12 different homes and gone to 10 different schools. When he started our program he chose to work with a mini horse named Ladybug who had some of the same struggles as Timothy. In fact, when asked why he chose Ladybug, Timothy said, “Because she is little and gets bullied a lot and has trouble making friends.” What he didn’t know is that Ladybug had quite a reputation, and as a result was not working in any other sessions. . . she was what horse people often call “mouthy,” and at times would straight up bite. Sweet little Ladybug could be quite intimidating to any person or animal she felt was smaller in spirit or stature – she was scared, so the survival regions of her brain tried to control others in an attempt to relieve her anxiety. All this resulted in her being bullied even more – she was covered in bite marks.
Timothy was intelligent, kind, had a great sense of humor, and . . . he was a hot mess! Gosh he was cute, but I didn’t have to live with him! His foster parents were simply beside themselves, and Ladybug understood why. Ladybug quickly picked up on his unpredictability and passivity, and within a couple sessions she was chasing Timothy while nipping at his rear. I have to admit, the horse person in me kinda wanted to tell him to pop her on the nose – SET a boundary! For Pete’s sake, she was bullying my client!
BUT we knew Timothy and Ladybug both desperately needed healthy connection to feel safe. Timothy needed to learn to have boundaries. If he had boundaries and healthy relationships, the need to set boundaries would lessen.He needed to learn to ask for what he needs, rather than focus on what he doesn’t want.Frankly, he had already tried telling his peers what not to do. He had told the teacher. He told his foster parents. The foster parents met with the school. The teacher told the other children to stop. And on and on. . . sigh. You all know the story.
So, Timothy began asking Ladybug for connection. At first, he had to ask her to move away because she was not safe, but he asked her to do this while still maintaining connection (more information about attachment and detachment in session). He didn’t tell her to go away. He would say, “Ladybug I want a friendship with you, but I need some space first. Can we be friends while you stand over there?” Then he would ask her to follow him while being present, calm, and kind. He danced back and forth between these two things for many weeks (as a side note: Timothy was meeting with us twice a week. He partnered with Ladybug one session and partnered with another horse for mounted work the other session). He practiced empathy – understanding how hard it was for Ladybug to connect instead of try to control, while still understanding that it is not his job to fix her. It was simply his job to make requests and then respond depending on Ladybug’s response. He was only responsible for his response to her. It was not his job to make her do anything or not do anything. There is a fine line between reflecting on what one could do differently and accepting responsibility for another’s aggressive behavior. Timothy practiced never accepting responsibility for her biting, while still realizing that he needed to practice assertiveness, focus, and connection. He had to give a little trust in order to get some trust – this took risk and vulnerability. He practiced allowing her to struggle without feeling the need to fix it – lots of deep breathes and time spent learning how to regulate.
No matter how Ladybug acted, Timothy would try to take a deep breath and say things like, “It is okay for you to be mad, but I still choose to be calm.” “I know this hard, but you can connect in a way that is safe for both of us.” He spent a lot of time learning what it means to ask Ladybug to be his friend, keeping the door open for that possibility, while maintaining the boundary that, “We can be friends when it is safe.” Timothy focused on his desire for connection, and kept in mind that Ladybug did want a friendship – she just wasn’t yet sure how to have one in a safe manner. He asked Ladybug to move away with connection and follow him with connection.
He did not learn to get big.
He did not make Ladybug go away as a punishment.
He did not yell.
He did not hit.
He focused on what he did want – a friendship – connection.
He learned to be assertive (use exactly the amount of energy needed to build a safe, connected relationship).
Ladybug completely quit biting and nipping at Timothy. The amazing thing is that Timothy never once asked or told Ladybug to stop biting! When she would nip at him, he would gently ask her to move away while still remaining calm and paying attention to him. He didn’t want her to withdraw because that damages connection. He didn’t want to scare her or punish her because that, too, damages connection. Then he would offer her a “do-over” (more information about Do-Overs). He would ask her to come back and see if they could experience connection through closeness in a safe way. Timothy learned to be soft, strong, calm, and comfortable in his own body. Over time he began to make friends and the bullying just seemed to stop. Ladybug’s relationship with her herd also seemed to change. We began to notice that the old bite marks had healed and there were no new ones.
I asked him one day why he didn’t think he was being bullied anymore and he said simply, “When you have good relationships you don’t get bullied.”
I asked him why he thought Ladybug was also no longer being bullied. He smiled at me, with so much pride in his face, and as he shrugged his shoulders he said, “When you have good relationships you don’t get bullied.”
A couple weeks ago, we shared this meme created by Our Mama Village about tantrums. After several long discussions on that Facebook post, we here at NaturalLifemanship felt we should write on the topic to help clarify the message we intended to demonstrate with the meme we posted. Additionally, it seems incredibly important to many parents and professionals that there be conversation on this topic – what is a tantrum and what is a meltdown….what do they have in common and how are they different? It is important to note that we are discussing these words as constructs – by definition the difference is minimal.
Follow the Facebook discussion here.
Let us begin by saying that we recognize there are many parents and professionals out there who care for children who experience challenging behaviors that others may not understand. We see that there is a need to educate the general population of the differences between behaviors.
At Natural Lifemanship we DO believe:
that meltdowns are a product of overwhelm for ANY child
that meltdowns should be treated with empathy and calm, kind presence
that meltdowns are NOT an example of poor behavior in children or poor parenting practices
Meltdowns occur due to a lack of skills to be able to regulate or handle emotional upset (depending on the child, the skills will come with age and learning, for other children these skills will be more difficult to acquire)
And at Natural Lifemanship, we ALSO believe:
that tantrums are a typical part of a child’s development of proper communication
Tantrums do not mean parents have done a poor job parenting
Tantrums demonstrate a lack of skill to communicate in a relationally appropriate way (some children will acquire this skill with time and practice, some will learn tantrums are their most effective way to communicate and continue using them)
Tantrums are not an example of willful manipulation with malicious intent – they are a behavior that all children attempt to get their needs met. We approach tantrums with the same empathy and kind presence as we do meltdowns. (depending on the child, the skills will come with age and learning, for other children these skills will be more difficult to acquire)
So what’s the difference?
A meltdown demonstrates a CAN’T from the lower regions of the brain. When a child is experiencing more sensory or emotional input than he or she can handle their nervous system becomes overwhelmed and sometimes this leads to intense reactions like strong crying, falling on the floor, yelling, physical aggression, self-harm, and attempts at self soothing like rocking. This is an example of the sensorial, motor, and emotional regions of the brain being so overwhelmed that control over these regions is temporarily lost. The way we adults respond to this matters. We respond with bottom-up regulation – caring, calm presence, deep breaths of our own, and if possible, rhythm that the child does not have produce herself (holding her, rocking her, tapping a rhythm she can hear, etc.). This is not a moment for teaching or lots of questions (this requires upper brain regions that are “offline” in that moment). Once the child is calm again, we can connect and teach skills for handling overwhelm or communicating overwhelm. A child’s ability to learn these skills is always there, but their progress will vary based on their development, capacity, and the predictability of the interactions between the child and the adults around her.
A tantrum is also a CAN’T but from the upper regions of the brain. Imagine a typical small child in a typical day. How frequently is this child in control of their lives? Not very frequently, at all. They hear the word “no” throughout the day, they don’t have a strong enough vocabulary to communicate clearly their needs and wants, and they often are not allowed to do or have what they want because of an adult stopping them (for a multitude of reasons). So, when a child is not developmentally to the point where their brain and bodies can communicate well, they feel controlled, and they are desperately searching for a sense of their own control – tantrums follow. When a child hears “no” for the hundredth time, when they want something they cannot have and experience disappointment, when they try to communicate an idea and we adults don’t listen or don’t understand – the child experiences overwhelm in their thinking and feeling and in turn has a strong reaction that may include similar behaviors to a meltdown. In this situation we often can respond in a more “top-down” approach, using words and reasoning that speak to the upper regions of the brain, BUT we ALSO need to regulate and soothe ALL the regions of the brain for the child to truly calm down. This means we need to be as calm and kind in our presence as we are during a meltdown. We believe there is an important distinction between a tantrum being seen as difficulty with communication versus willful manipulation. One perspective attempts to understand the behavior and address the root problem, the other is a blaming stance that does not attempt to address the difficulty underneath. These two perspectives often lead adults to two different kinds of responses. THIS is the issue we intended to address with the meme we posted from Our Mama Village. We DO not believe tantrums to be malicious or willful – brain science tells us it is a lack of communication skills, a lack of development, that leads to tantrums.
Of course, we can reinforce a tantrum by giving in to the request and teach a child that tantrums are effective – so we encourage parents to be firm in setting and maintaining an appropriate limit during a tantrum…but we can do that with kindness and empathy.
As a quick side note, we believe that adults can also have tantrums and meltdowns. Many adults also lack the skills to communicate their needs when they feel powerless, overwhelmed, etc. The experience and embodiment of trauma – and the resulting mental health diagnoses – often result in an inability to regulate and handle overwhelm or emotional upset. This is very important to understand if you do therapy with adults, especially if you do equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) with adults -dysregulation and regression are often a part of the process – how we handle this is so important. We also believe that horses and other animals have tantrums (as the upper regions of their brains develop more) and meltdowns. How we handle tantrums and meltdowns with horses and other animals, especially when doing EAP or EAL is such an important part of the process. It is important that we model how to address the need underneath the behavior in our sessions. Tantrums and meltdowns happen with adults and animals for the same reasons stated above, and should be handled the same way – with empathy and a kind presence. Remember, a good principle is a good principle regardless of where it is applied.
This is a story about parenting….dogs. Now don’t get me wrong – I have no intention of saying parenting dogs is like parenting kids (entirely), people are not dogs and dogs are not people. But, relationships are relationships – and if we are open to learning, we can learn MUCH from our relationships with animals.
I am a family therapist and in the last few years have ventured into the field of attachment trauma – I have learned and learned, practiced and practiced. But, it turns out; the most humbling and challenging experience for me (thus far) has been parenting a dog with attachment trauma. It makes my heart go out to those who parent children with attachment trauma – again, not the exact same thing, but, similar. Y’all, this stuff is hard, even if it is ‘just a dog’. Let me explain.
I have two dogs – Boogie and Olive. Boogie came into my life as a puppy at 8 weeks old. He started out in a loving home with his momma and has been by my side for the last 9 years. He is utterly attuned to me, cares deeply about what I think, makes requests clearly and calmly, and is easily comforted by our companionship. He is securely attached – he has no trauma around his human relationships – he is attuned and connected, easily. Olive on the other hand, was a stray. My mother took her in at her farm when she was roughly 6 months old. This is where Olive learned to play with other dogs and get along with a handful of humans; she was safe, well fed, and loved. However, she is a very different dog from Boogie. She is skittish, self-focused, is an alarmist, and warms up very slowly to new people, and only if they approach her properly. She came to live with me at about a year old, and about a year ago. She is challenging, to say the least. She is also wonderful and has stolen my heart – but that does not mean things have been easy.
So what is going on here? Why such a huge difference between the two? Olive had a warm and loving home so soon in her life – shouldn’t she adjust easily?
A disclaimer here, my areas of focus are humans and horses; but here is what I know about mammalian brains in general. They begin growing in utero, they grow in response to their environment, and they grow rapidly in the very beginning of life. In humans, 80% of brain growth happens before a child is 3 years old. Dogs grow and age exponentially faster than we do – so it would make sense that a 6-month-old dog would have experienced a significant amount of development in their brain, with much of its neural pathways already sorted out. (Especially when you think about what a 6-month-old dog is capable of, as compared to a human).
When Olive came to live with us, I spent the first few weeks feeling totally overwhelmed. I had had dogs all my life, but she was a conundrum. How can a dog be so selfish, so uninterested in my requests, so hard to soothe? Then, after too long, it hit me…duh, I have a dog with her own difficulties of attachment trauma. I had been studying this and working with families who struggled with this for several years now – but it only then occurred to me that my dog might be experiencing the same thing (it’s so easy to compartmentalize humans as being totally different from animals…but really, that’s just not the case that often). Thankfully, a light bulb went on about so many of her behaviors. For example:
Olive isn’t selfish – that’s my interpretation of her behavior. What’s really happening is she has an overdeveloped sense of survival, or in other words, the mechanisms for survival in her brain are in overdrive– so every meal, every “treasure”, every opportunity to take care of herself – she capitalizes. Survival thinking is “me” thinking – it is “how do I take care of just myself, in just this moment?” Of course she tried to eat her dinner as well as everyone else’s, and of course, she tried to horde all the treats, and push Boogie out of the way when attention was being given. She was taking care of herself, the best way she knew how. Her early experiences, likely including her intrauterine experiences, told her that survival was of the utmost importance – not relationships with others, and certainly not with humans. That only comes when survival needs are met with safety, security, and predictability. The survival, “me” focused portions of her brain were muscled up, while her relational “we” portions of her brain were underdeveloped.
Olive isn’t uninterested in my requests – dismissing and rejecting me – she was focused on her needs and how she was going to take care of herself like she’d always done. And anyway, who was I? Some human that thought I should matter to her all of a sudden because I took her in? Humans, in general, have not been a predictable force in her life. Lately, a few had been great, but early on? As a stray I can only imagine her experience of humans – ignoring her, running her off, maybe even being the ones who dumped her in the first place. Yet, I expected her to simply trust me – based on no other reason than I thought she should. I’m pretty nice, why not? But, when people are unpredictable, the safest thing you can do is keep your distance and focus on taking care of yourself. That’s all she was doing. She doesn’t have pathways in her brain that exclaim “Yay, people!” like Boogie – her neural pathways are more likely to say, “People….hmmmmm”. So, it’s no wonder my requests were met with some dismissiveness – building a relationship in which trust goes both ways doesn’t happen overnight, especially when one party has no previous experience with trust. Imagine trying to ride a bike down a mountain path, when it’s your first time on a bike! You would totally fail – not because you didn’t care, but because you didn’t have the previous experience as a foundation for this new one. Neural pathways don’t change simply because circumstances change, they change over time, with practice and consistency. Just like learning to ride a bike.
Unpredictability in early life also impacts Olive’s ability to be soothed. Her life for the first 6 months, and possibly in utero as well – involved hunger, fear, and fight/flight/freeze. So her brain wired itself to be highly sensitive, highly responsive, and quick to detect threat. None of this supports a zen approach to life – it does support survival, though, and beautifully so. So
es, when a strange man walks in the house, or a big truck sits in our driveway, or we get in the car for an unknown destination – Olive is upset, and difficult to soothe. Why doesn’t my relationship with her soothe her easily? See point #2.
I cannot tell you how many mistakes I have made with Olive because I assumed she was being selfish, or rejecting, or unreasonably difficult. And knowing what I know about the brain and attachment trauma doesn’t mean I am automatically doing a better job with her. I do at times, and other times I let my feelings get the best of me. To be honest, when I really think back over all the times she and I have gotten cross-wise, most instances were my doing. Yes, she did something I didn’t like – but my impatience, my assumptions, and my big feelings are what turned a small “misbehavior” into a relational rupture. Has she been challenging? Heck yes. Has she been willfully, intentionally “bad”? Pretty much never.
We learn about each other more every day – and a year after she came into our lives she is a loving, sweet, playful friend – who also makes questionable choices and is difficult to soothe. Parenting Olive is a journey in which we both make mistakes. I am deeply grateful for the unending forgiveness she has inside of her – that fortunately, most dogs do.
The greatest lesson she is teaching me is that building a relationship with someone who has experienced attachment trauma doesn’t just take time, it takes intentionality over time. Lots of time. For she and I to be successful we need predictability, calm, intentionality, and forgiveness. Not just love – love is good, it is necessary, but it isn’t a cure all. The brain doesn’t work that way. New pathways are formed through repetition, not just good intentions.
So for those of you who are loving someone (be they four-legged or two) with attachment trauma – it is hard. It is beyond words hard. Progress is slow and certainly not a straight line. And it asks a lot of us – we have to be patient, and in control of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. But if we expect that of them, then shouldn’t we be able to do it ourselves first? And you know what, life with Olive may never be as easy as it is with Boogie.
But I noticed something the other day. When I laugh…Olive wags her tail, and when she comes bounding into a room (she is always bounding), it makes me smile. It’s a small thing, but it’s something.
Kate Naylor is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the Austin, Texas area and a Natural Lifemanship trainer. More information can be found at www.kategosenaylor.com