Mike and I spent Friday at Empowered to Connect. Along with hundreds of other adoptive and foster parents, we listened to Dr. Karyn Purvis and her team teach about Trust-Based Parenting.
Dr. Purvis is a developmental psychologist and author of The Connected Child. Dr. Purvis specializes in working with children who are at risk for social, behavioral, and emotional problems. Most of our kids who were adopted at older ages fall into that category.
I always say that The Connected Child was the best thing I read as we prepared to adopt Wenxin. Coming to us at age 7 1/2, he'd already had a lot of losses in life. When one of the nannies at the orphanage gently pushed him through the door and whispered, "Say Mama and Baba," we were strangers to him. We didn't even speak his language.
Thinking back to those early days, I'd like to thank Dr. Purvis for teaching us that play is important.
We were silly.
Arriving home in the U.S., we reminded each other that the playful approach seemed to be working. Sure we had rules and routines, but we tried to keep things light, and whenever possible, we played.
On Friday, Dr. Purvis talked a lot about brain development in babies. She shared that, ideally, over the first year of life, a baby learns that "when I express a need, my need is met." Babies cry when they are hungry or wet or over-tired, and soon a parent comes and feeds them or changes them or rocks them. According to Dr. Purvis, the science is there to show that this actually aids the baby's brain development.
Dr. Purvis also reminded us that with our newborn biological kids we spent almost a year saying, "Yes," before we ever had to say, "No."
"Yes, I'll feed you."
"Yes, I'll change your diaper."
"Yes, I'll pick you up and hold you."
Of course, once babies are mobile, it becomes necessary to say, "No," as well, but by that point, the baby has learned that the world is a safe place for him and that he can trust his parents.
However, for many of our adopted kids, it was a different story. They cried and no one came. They were hungry, and no one fed them. They lay for hours in wet and dirty diapers. The baby in chronic distress is on high alert. He learns that no one will meet his needs, and he has to fight for survival. His default brain responses become aggression, violence, manipulation, control, and triangulation.
Dr. Purvis says that neglect actually changes the way the neglected child's brain works.
With that is mind, a playful approach makes so much sense. Our kids from hard places are afraid. They are on high alert. Play helps them relax.
And do you see why finding ways to say, "Yes," is important too? As we say over and over again, "Yes, I'll meet your need, " we build trust.
In a sense, we need to give our kids what they missed as babies. I've seen this work in our home.
As Wenxin got to know and trust us, he liked to be held. Please know that this came in time. I didn't hold Wenxin in China. He wasn't even sure he liked me at first. We let him get to know us and never forced physical affection. But still, we found non-threatening ways to touch him. We tousled his hair, or held his hand as we walked. I put sweet-smelling lotion on him after his bath.
As he relaxed a little, he began to want me to hold him. Look at this photo. Doesn't this remind you of how a mom holds a newborn?
Once, one of the other kids commented that I was spending a lot of time holding Wenxin. Wenxin replied, "Momma's catching me up. She's been holding you all your life. You even got to grow in her tummy. Momma's catching me up."
Smart boy. That's exactly what I was doing.
If you're adopting an older child, I urge you to read The Connected Child and even attend an Empowered to Connect Conference , if possible. Our children who experienced trauma or neglect face huge challenges, but Dr. Purvis shares that an informed, loving parent is a powerful tool. There's a place for counselors and therapists too, but they really can't take the place of a loving, informed parent.
I have some other things to share this week from Empowered to Connect, but for today, let me close with a short video from Dr. Purvis.