You could say there is an art of the adult “re-do,” or the concept of second chances. We’ve come to the last installment of our three-part series on what the siblings need from parents when a new brother or sister from a trauma background joins the family. We’ve listened to the voices of now-adult “resident siblings” (the ones in the home already) and learned that there are multiple stressors common to each involved. We’ve begun to explore practical things parents can do now to prevent or mitigate these stressors.

At this point, a feeling of guilt often creeps up on parents who realize that the child needed something more than the adoptive parents offered the child: the parents, like I did, pick up a guilt load for what the mom or dad didn’t know ahead of time; what the parent thinks he or she should have known. No one likes to feel like he or she messed up. Why is it so hard for us adults to mess up? I don’t mean hard for us to mess up; I think that part is pretty easy. It’s hard on us to mess up.

Perhaps it’s just me, but on the days when I blow it and expose my brokenness to my inner critic (who’s only too eager to point the finger and say, “aha! You failed again”), I find myself at a familiar three-way crossroad:

-Push blame on others by pretending it’s anyone’s fault but mine.

-Turn a blind eye to the whole mess by pretending none of it ever happened.

-Accept responsibility that I messed up. 

I ran into this situation when I started researching what resident children need. I wanted to know if there was a formula for preparing resident kids best to thrive as the brother or sister of a sibling from a trauma background. (I don’t think there is one set formula, by the way.) There I was, surrounded by research that implicated me in several errors of judgment about what my kids needed from me but didn’t get. For example, I thought that putting out sibling strife fires as those situations came up would be a good strategy for supporting my five biological kids.

What that means is that, instead of being proactive to prevent issues between the siblings, I waited until there were obvious problems before I stepped in. Waiting until smaller issues became big problems might have worked if I had appropriate tools for the job. You can’t put out a wildfire with gasoline, though, and that’s what I had to work with.

A Re-do Isn’t Just for Kids.

So, what’s a parent to do after finding out that fighting fire is less effective than addressing smoke issues before those problems become too hot to handle? If we take a lesson from the folks at The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development (Texas Christian University), the answer is a re-do. Have you heard of re-do’s? It’s a strategy to modify unwanted behavior by creating an empowering and fun environment to train the child to do over an action or behavior that went south earlier. The genius behind the re-do is the understanding that many of the unwanted behaviors in kids from trauma backgrounds come from a lack of skill comprehension, rather than all-out rebellion. So, the idea is that discipline must involve teaching those skills and not just pointing out to the children what he or she is doing wrong all the time.

In the case of kids from trauma backgrounds, especially, but all kids in general (yes, even adult kids like you and me), it is imperative that we not punish children for not knowing or being able to do the “correct” behavior. Instead, we offer playfulness and connection as we give children another chance to try a specific behavior again.

One of the best parts of the “re-do” approach is the final step, move on. When we teach a kid how to re-do, he begins to ignore the inner voice telling him that he is no good, and he releases the shame he felt for “messing up.” Essentially, it’s saying, “Don’t get stuck in shame that you needed a re-do in the first place. Identify the action you need to change, accept the mistake, practice the correct way, and keep that train moving.”

Let’s Apply This to Parenting Resident Kids. 

Parents should be able to have a re-do, too, don’t you think? I sure needed one, once I knew better what my resident kids needed from me all those years. For example, it never occurred to me when my kids were young that each would need specialized training to prepare for the changes that adoption would bring. This is because I thought all the secure years before the adoptions were enough for my children to withstand any displacement each might feel when my attention was away or elsewhere. I believed that my resident children’s feelings of security and my love up to that point would somehow override any new feelings of insecurity that bringing seven-year-old special needs brothers into the family would create.

Additionally, I sorely underestimated the amount of time and emotional energy I’d need to put into the brothers as well as the fallout on the resident kids from brothers’ trauma-related behaviors. I assumed my resident children would readily come to me with any issues to be had–this meant that I believed my resident children’s silence was a good sign. It wasn’t. I didn’t think I needed to talk to my children about special needs, trauma, and early histories. It wasn’t really until I came upon all the research that I learned that, yes, these children needed a more proactive education on all of the above.

This is where the adult re-do comes in. Once you know better, you can do better. The re-do is the way to do better now. Do better can look like anyone of these ideas:

-When you learn that kids need a safe place to vent personal frustrations and you haven’t provided that for kids before, you either become that non-judgmental space for a kid or find her a peer support group where she can talk to others who face the same issues she does.

-When you learn that resident siblings can succumb to secondary trauma as well, you educate yourself on the signs of STS and get the help needed. 

-When you learn that resident kids won’t always come to you with personal issues independently, you proactively encourage your resident kids to by empowering the communication environment.

-When you learn that resident kids need to know about sibling’s hard early life so that he or she can be prepared for some of the issues that will personally affect life, you talk to him or her about it, in age-appropriate ways.

-When you realize that you didn’t always make room for your child’s big feelings, you start conversations with him now to let him know that emotions don’t have to be overwhelming and he can safely share those with you now.

-When you realize that your resident child has been shouldering unrealistic expectations of sibling harmony, you start today to help her understand the complexity of blending children into an existing family.

It is never too late to learn how to be a more attuned parent for your resident children and see things through what is in the best interest of members of the family.

Attuned Parenting Looks for What’s in the Best Interest of the Child.

“An attuned parent is one who is aware of, and responsive to, their child’s needs, looking at things from the child’s perspective.”

One of the greatest gifts we can give our resident kids is to become more attuned to what is in the best interest in regards to how fostering or adoption affects those kids. Attuned parenting for your resident child means being aware of, and responsive to his or her needs as the sibling of a special needs brother or sister. Attuned parenting asks questions such as:

-How does my child feel? Is he happy or sad, engaged with the family or withdrawn, in distress, or needing more connection with me? 

-What is the best way to communicate with my child, both verbally and non-verbally? What will encourage and show her feelings of love and care? 

-What gets him to open up to me and tell me what’s really on his heart? What does he need to feel safe?

Attuned parenting goes beyond learning the latest tips and techniques; it recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. It sounds like this:

-“I see you working so hard to be a good sister even when your good intentions aren’t returned.”

-“Hey, you look like you need a break from your brother. Why don’t you and I go out for ice cream?”

I wasn’t an attuned parent in the early days of parenting both biological and adopted kids. It wasn’t until much later after we adopted that I even realized just how serious were the issues my resident children faced. There were interpersonal issues between my biological children and the new twin brothers. Some kids felt insecure because of the amount of energy I was putting forth on the twins. Some felt unsafe because of the amount of general stress in our home.

And even when I did recognize some obvious stresses on my resident kids, I didn’t realize each needed more from me to withstand the chaos that characterized a great deal of our hardest seasons. But instead, the days, weeks, and months where we lived in a battle zone caused by trauma inflicted before we met the twins caused us to lose ground as a family.

Here are some things that helped me become a more attuned parent:

-Honesty with self and others about the parts of my own history that I bring into my relationships with my kids.

-Making peace with my imperfections as a parent in order to be more compassionate in my children’s areas of challenge. 

-Mindfulness about what goes on inside me that could cloud every interaction and interfere with my ability to help my kids grow through all of the struggles. 

-Going deep diving into my own triggers and recognizing when it’s not even about my child anymore.  -Creating intentionality to move forward once I do know better about what my children need from you. 

If you are like me, hearing what your children need, when you may not have realized it before, is stressful for us parents. We need support, too and to learn to forgive ourselves. I’ve been there myself: feeling guilt, shame, and embarrassment when I realized how much everyone had been struggling in the family and I didn’t even know it.

Forgiveness Is the Key to Moving Forward.

For me, coming to terms with my shortcoming involved a lot of praying before I could own the past mistakes that were in my control, repent of slip-ups, ask forgiveness from God and each child. I made intentions to walk the freedom that comes when God forgives. This allowed me to forgive myself, and truthfully, I believe forgiveness of ourselves is what will open the door to enable our children to forgive us, too if that is needed.

I tell my children all the time that each is a beautiful work in progress, and that each child is amazing in the here and now, too. What I didn’t know at the time, and have had a hard time learning since is that I need to be telling this truth to myself too. And so do you. It’s not realistic to be perfect 100% of the time, to know every answer, and to never make a mistake, especially as a parent. But that’s hard to tell oneself.

I’m here saying this to you, as one parent to another: You are a beautiful work in progress. Remember this motto: once you know better, you can do better. That’s true for our kids from hard places, for our resident kids, and yes, for ourselves too. You are strong and you are brave. You can do more of the things you are already doing well and less of the things that you now know can hinder connection with your resident child. You can identify the STS in your resident child’s life and work on mitigating those stresses. Whether you are starting fresh, starting over, or a combination of both, you can do this.

*This content was taken from the upcoming book “In their Best Interest: Preventing Secondary Trauma in the Siblings of Foster and Adopted Children” by this author, projected to publish in Spring 2020.