reFRAMED: Reframing Breathing As a Parent in the Trenches

The Gladney Center for Adoption has created a phenomenal podcast resource for those that support children, whether it’s adoptive parents, birth parents, or professionals.  Each podcast episode is a treasure trove of reflections, strategies, and resources ranging from general parenting tips to specific strategies that can help parents transition from traditional parenting to mindful parenting.  Emily Moorehead, a licensed professional counselor, hosts each episode where she chats with professionals in a variety of fields.  In episode 2, she and Ginny Manley, a fellow Gladney LPC, sit down with Marshall Lyles—a licensed professional counselor with 15 years of experience in family and play therapy.

Permission to Breathe  

In episode 2, Lyles reflects on parent trainings he created entitled “Permission to Breathe.”  His goal is to educate parents on self-awareness and self-compassion in those difficult moments with our children.  I found this particularly compelling because it is so difficult to offer ourselves grace and compassion when we are in the trenches of parenting, especially when parenting children that have experienced trauma.  He discusses the reality that in challenging moments, there is much that is required of us as parents: behaviors to try to understand, words to digest, strategies and experiences to access.  All of that means that sometimes it is best to pause for a moment to breathe and take time to process.  We don’t have to react right away…we have time in order to do it right.  I felt personally convicted a bit and realized that often I can be a reactive parent.  When I am cruising ahead and my kids do something unexpected that doesn’t make sense to me, I often react immediately rather than reflect momentarily.  Afterward, I can usually think of a myriad of ways I could have addressed the behavior other than how I did.  I could have had more grace, more tenderness, more patience.  When I heard Lyles mention self-compassion, my ears perked up because I think we all need a bit more self-understanding of how we parent, along with the self-compassion when we realize there may be a better way.

Turning Point in Mindfulness

Lyles also discusses a moment that was a turning point for him in his understanding of mindfulness.  He recalls walking a teenage client back to his cottage at a children’s home.  They were discussing Lyles’s need to use the sidewalk because he was recovering from ankle surgery for a chronic issue that he had experienced his whole life.  The teenage boy responded with a surprising realization: “Oh, we all wondered why you [understood] this kind of pain.”  It was then that Lyles realized that the physical pain that he had spent years trying to ignore was, in reality, his asset.  He could use this pain to help him love, understand, and connect to the kids he was working so hard to support.  It was the avenue that led him into mindfulness, the recognition of your own struggles and emotions in the moment, and leveraging that as we model for our children how to cope. While listening, I realized that mindful parenting isn’t some kind of kumbaya, perfectly peaceful parenting.  Instead, it is recognizing the struggles we face and finding ways to connect that to our children’s struggles.  I want them to obey because they love me and desire to do the right thing, but I have been tempted, and I’ve made bad choices before.  I didn’t make those choices because I wanted to “stick it” to my mom and dad; I made those choices because the desired fun or ease was greater than doing the right thing.  Usually, I find myself exasperatedly doling out predetermined consequences when I could be connecting with my children’s difficulty of choosing the right thing over the pleasing thing.  That is not to say there is no consequence but that I have the opportunity to value the moment of connection and teaching over the consequence.

“Healing Doesn’t Feel Good”

Lyles recognizes the difficulty of the reflecting and healing process.  Ginny Manley mentions how we have the preconceived notions of what we will be like as parents; we have methods we want to use and experiences we hope to have when working through difficulties with our children, but then we get in it—for real.  What we thought we would do and how we thought we would react doesn’t happen.  We may lose our way during our parenting journey, behaving in a way we never intended.  They discuss the need to lean into our communities during that time. This is a pattern I have recognized for myself.  Man, before I had kids, I was going to be a great parent, one that was slow to anger…calm, cool, and collected.  Then, I became a parent.  Then I became a parent of two.  I have not always felt particularly proud of myself in this parenting journey, and the discussion in this podcast about losing our path was certainly one I could identify with.  I have reflected with my own mother, sister, and close friends about some of the difficult situations I’ve had parenting, and often, I leave those conversations with ideas and strategies to try the next time we face a difficult issue.  In my parenting community, I have the opportunity to take ownership of my emotions and motives and reflect on changing my own patterns.  I also have the opportunity for the self-compassion Lyles discusses in this podcast.

Lyles also acknowledges that we make mistakes as parents.  He discusses the concept of “rupture and repair” in attachment.  When we make mistakes as parents or “rupture” the relationship, we have the opportunity to confess and show our children a genuine apology.  Taking ownership of our own wrongdoing is another valuable model for our children.  The relationship can be repaired, and our children can see how we initiate forgiveness from them and work to do better in the future.  In fact, in this episode, he states a statistic that puts my mind at ease: Attunement only has to happen 30% of the time for kids to become securely attached.  What a relief to know that I can mess up, because I do!  The most important thing I can do, though, is lead my children by recognizing my mistakes and modeling sincere apologies.  I don’t have to be perfect; I just have to continually show up, be present, and lead by example as much as I can.

Modeling Before Discipline

The three also discuss the importance of modeling behaviors for our children, especially in those difficult moments.  Lyles states that mindful parenting is “about understanding that we can’t communicate connection until we have mastered regulation.”  Moorehead clarifies for herself that mindfulness is essentially on us first as parents.  I need to be aware of my own sensations (emotions, thoughts, potential impact, etc.) in order to understand and relate to those of my children.  The reason Lyles prioritizes taking a moment to breathe is because that parental time-out can afford us the opportunity to look at the challenging situation with a different lens.  He talks about how we can’t just tell our children to be respectful; we have to first treat them with respect.  Seeing us model that and explicitly label our behaviors for our children is what will help our children learn how to respect.  Our behaviors will speak louder than our words and our discipline.  Lyles talks about how our rules and consequences are not what teach our children specific behaviors.  Without consistent modeling of the behaviors we want to see in our children, they will never internalize how to give respect or cope with pain.  Taking a breath and entering the difficulty beside our children will give us the chance to show them how to handle hurt, how to communicate through anger, how to experience calm in chaos, how to consistently show up for those we love.  Lyles was sure to mention that it doesn’t mean we don’t hand out consequences but that we allow our children to first experience the behaviors we want them to embody in life.

One of my favorite quotes from this podcast came from Lyles: “No structure has worked outside of nature.”  This was so powerful for me personally because I am such a believer in structure and rules and clear expectations.  However, as I am parenting my two 4-year-olds right now with very different adoption stories, I can get lost in the rules and regulations.  I find myself, at times, valuing control of my children over the disciplining of their hearts.  Without love, my rules become meaningless.  Without compassion, my consequences will become hoops to jump through.  Without empathy, my teachings will be empty.  He discusses the need to balance structure and love so that our children don’t just hear that we love them, but that they actually experience it when they are in their most difficult moments.

Open Communication Along with the Preservation of Your Child’s Story

Further in the podcast, Lyles, Manley, and Moorehead converse about how to have open lines of communication with our families and friends that may not fully understand some of our parenting choices.  In adoption, parents have to work diligently to form attachments.  That may mean that you serve food a certain way or have specific protocols you follow for nap time.  When our families respond with explanations of how they were raised, it may feel like judgment, but the reality is that they may just not know any better because they don’t know what your child has experienced, and they may not understand what your child needs from you.  Opening lines of communication to say “I need you to trust me that I am making this choice because of my child’s unique needs.  I can’t tell you all of the reasons why, but I am hoping you will trust me to do what I think is right.”  As adoptive parents, we have to choose whether or not and to what extent we want to educate our families.

When our daughter joined our family at 2 years old, I initially felt so uncomfortable telling my family not to give her any food or treats or come to her aid if she was crying.  They wanted to nurture her as well and form attachments with her, but as her mom and dad, she had to learn that we were her consistent caregivers.  I didn’t want to hurt feelings by reminding them not to feed her when her precious hand reached for their plates, but our families were so gracious with us because we were able to explain how important their role is in helping her understand who her mommy and daddy were.  They learned that they could say no to her reach for sweets and instead direct her to us to get what she wanted.  They were actually helping us form attachments with her when they knew our intentional decisions.

But if there is open communication, how does an adoptive parent preserve the child’s story and make it their child’s to tell?  This is so sensitive, and one I am learning much about.  Lyles talks about asking our families for trust when there are things we can’t tell them about our children’s stories.  He gave the illustration of a 12-year-old, years after the adoption, choosing to confide in a grandparent by asking, “Do you know what happened to me?”  He describes how profound it can be for an adoptee to trust a family member with all the delicate details and vulnerabilities of his story.  As adoptive parents, when we preserve our children’s stories so that they are in control of who they share their story with, we create the opportunities for our children as they grow to have trusting and deep relationships.

Parenting is so hard, but having resources like Gladney’s reFRAMED Podcast can give parents the chance to reflect on how to support our adoptees.  Our kids will get the opportunity to experience deep and meaningful relationships when we can be fully present to model the behaviors we expect them to learn.