Meeting a child’s sensory needs

Our interview series on The Connected Parent closes with the topic of sensory needs. For children from hard places, sensory challenges are often a symptom of trauma. You may have observed some of these behaviors. Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) takes these unique needs into consideration with its approach. We asked Sheila Wagler-Mills, TBRI practitioner, to share guidance in this area.

Why do children from hard places often struggle with sensory stimulation?

Every child’s story is different, but there are often common themes. For instance, for children who experienced neglect growing up, their need for sensory stimulation was unmet, resulting in a deficiency that did not allow the brain to develop optimally. As a result, these children often seek sensory stimulation. In contrast, children who experienced physical abuse associate touch with a negative and often become sensory avoidant or avoidant to specific types of sensory input. Children who were hospitalized early in their life may also become sensory avoidant because of the overstimulation related to their treatment.

Learn more about sensory processing.

How can healthy attachment relationships positively affect your child’s sensory processing, and what does this look like?

Healthy relationships require trust and safety. If an environment of safety is created in early life, it creates an environment from which it is safe to explore and return. When caring for children from hard places, building that trust and safety will give your child the opportunity to work through sensory insecurities and try new things. Whether the problem is withdrawing from or over seeking sensory input, a secure place and trusting relationship will encourage a child to explore and return more freely, in order to meet their sensory needs. In research, healthy attachments are proven to correlate with improved sensory processing.

How does rocking and holding a child during early development help children with healthy sensory stimulation, processing and attachment? If this is critical, how can this need be met in older children?

Rocking and holding young children activates the vestibular and proprioceptive senses and helps them to “find” their body and its place in space. These experiences help a child to process and organize information. Vestibular deficits are strongly correlated with insecure attachment in children.

For older children, who may not want to be rocked or held, there are other ways to help them reorganize and heal the brain through appropriate vestibular and proprioceptive activation, such as jumping and swinging or the use of weighted blankets. For children of all ages, helping them to utilize appropriate environmental stimulation to meet their needs aids in developing crucial skills and even encourages healthy attachment. However, it is also important to read body cues, as too much stimulation can be counterproductive, resulting in overwhelm and emotional dysregulation.

How can caregivers use felt safety to help their kids regulate sensory needs?

In short, a child is not free to experiment or explore in the sensory world if they don’t feel safe. This is one of many reasons TBRI is trust-based at its core. It’s also important for parents to follow through on what they say they will do and to give yeses as often as possible to build felt safety in children from hard places. Children learn by experience, and healthy experience builds new neural pathways, which lead to healing.

Our clinical team offers counseling support for sensory needs, helping you discover the why behind behaviors. If your child is struggling with extensive sensory-processing challenges, we will work together to identify additional resources including occupational therapy. Connect with us through our online request form.

Holistic self-care with TBRI

Our interview series based on The Connected Parent continues today with a focus on self-care. One might wonder how self-care applies with Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) principles. We’ve chosen to highlight this important topic because parenting can be stressful. Add in the complexities of trauma and one cannot be compassionate for others if they don’t take care of themselves. Let’s dive in and see what Sheila Wagler-Mills, TBRI Practitioner, had to say about self-care.

What would you say to a caregiver who is reluctant to make time for self-care? How would you help them understand its value, and how is it different from the stigmatized, selfish version?

You can’t and won’t effectively provide appropriate care for your child unless you make the time to care for yourself. Parenting is sacrificial, but meeting our own needs allows us to optimize our parenting, and thus benefits the child. It’s about balancing the emotional and physical needs of both ourselves and our children. Both matter, and it doesn’t need to be either/or.

Talk about the value of sleep for both parent and child. Share ways to create a sensory-balanced and attachment-rich sleep environment?

Sleep is another form of holistic self-care. Without sleep, we can’t be our best, most effective selves, as parent or child. Sensory needs vary from child to child. Some may want a nightlight, another may not; they may or may not want the door open. A weighted blanket or stuffed animals may help many. Providing a healthy snack before they sleep or next to them for when they wake up can allow a child with blood sugar issues or food insecurity to rest better. The important thing is to ask questions and make choices for what works best for each individual child to reduce fear and sensory responses.

How do you engage in self-care after a parenting fail? How does a redo for children apply to adults?

It’s based on my own need at the time. Poor behavior is based on an unmet need for both children and parents. Parents need to step back and ask, “What do I need to make sure I’m meeting my need and theirs?” We should also ask ourselves why our child’s behavior is affecting our emotions and what we need to do to work through our triggers.

Redoes allow us to rewire neural pathways in the brain so correct behaviors are able to replace broken pathways in the brain. For parents, we may need to apologize for overreacting (or another poor behavior), assure the child this wasn’t their fault, then ask for a redo, just as we would ask one of them in reversed circumstances. In addition to making a relational repair, we are also modeling for the child how to make a comeback from poor behavior.

When asked about her go to self-care strategies, Sheila said…

I create space for myself by just getting away for a bit to catch my breath. I often try to move around and even find doing chores provides a distraction and outlet. I also talk with a trusted friend, colleague, or someone else who understands children from hard places.

During the time I take in that space, or conversation, I have the goal of reflecting back to figure out how I can be a better parent. I use that time to understand what’s going on with me so I can meet my own needs as well as my children’s.

Caring for children from hard places is a big job. It takes your whole self to implement TBRI principles well. Take some time to consider what quality self-care looks like for you. Even small steps can positively influence your perspective and ultimately your relationships.

We will close the series with a post on sensory-processing needs, a symptom of trauma that you may observe in your child.

Parenting with TBRI

Today we turn to CCHO’s Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) expert to give us first-hand guidance on parenting. Sheila Wagler-Mills, LPCC-S, Regional Program Director for Encompass, is a TBRI Practitioner as well as a foster-and-adoptive mom. We asked her a series of questions about how to parent with TBRI.

How does compassion for self and child make a difference in parenting a child from hard places?

The key to compassion is through trust, which is often the greatest barrier for children from hard places. As parents of children from traumatic backgrounds, it’s important to recognize your child’s behavior as reflection of a need, that usually results from their trauma. It’s through being able to recognize their unique needs, understanding the why behind their behavior, and building trust that you will be able to use compassion to connect with them.

What’s one area where caregivers frequently apply the TBRI principles incorrectly?

There are three principles to TBRI: empowering, connecting, and correcting. Many times, parents see behavior first and want to go straight to correcting their child’s behavior. Again, the behavior that children with wounded hearts exhibit is most often a symptom of a need. And the need is most often motivated by fear.

Instead of attempting to discipline inappropriate behavior, caregivers can focus on healing by looking at behaviors as opportunities to discover and meet the child’s need. The challenges that children with trauma or insecure attachment have dealt with involved their whole self. TBRI attempts to address needs from a holistic view. The neural pathways in the child’s brain must be rewired by addressing needs and fears. By meeting a need, behaviors will often naturally decrease.

How can caregivers switch from the way they instinctually parent to a trauma informed/TBRI style?

It starts with mindful awareness of recognizing that parenting instincts are borne from their own experience. Parents of children with traumatic pasts must be aware of both their child’s experiences and the impact of their own histories, which may have also included brokenness. Parents must intentionally adjust their parenting instincts to meet their child’s needs. The caregiving a parent received may not be appropriate for the child they are raising.

There are a few questions to consider when parenting children from hard places. Why are they exhibiting this behavior? What is the need behind the behavior? What can the caregiver do to meet the need in this moment? And, what needs of the caregiver are coming to light in response to the child’s behavior?

How can parents advocate for their child or teen’s trauma/attachment/sensory needs at school/play?

Through providing education we can help our children’s teachers understand why a behavior is occurring and how to help meet their needs. We can help our children’s teachers know what they can expect from our children, such as aggressive behaviors in response to reminders of a history of abuse, or the need for fidgets and breaks to help with focus. It’s our role to protect and advocate for our children. When the parent and teacher become a team, we provide greater opportunities to help our children learn and heal.

How can a parent give their child a choice or compromise without feeling like they lost power in the situation? What does sharing power look like with an older child?

We do so by offering the child choices that are deemed appropriate by the parent or caregiver. Give the child choices, but choices that are healthy and appropriate. When parents share their power, it proves it was theirs in the first place. Sharing power allows for more yeses for the child and helps to build trust and disarm fear. Yeses and compromises also allow for practice in negotiation and giving our child a voice. It’s an important teaching tool. Shared voice facilitates the TBRI principles of connecting and empowering.

As a foster-to-adopt parent, what parenting change, based on TBRI, have you made that has had the most notable impact with your kids?

Learning about my own attachment style and needs. Parenting styles are determined by how we were parented as a child, so by understanding our attachment style, it helps us to understand what we bring to the table in our child’s care.

For foster-to-adopt parents, our children have experienced another life outside of our own, so we must also consider what they bring to the table, and how their needs will intersect with our own. Their past traumas can bring to light triggers in our own lives. The importance of understanding my own attachment history has had more of an impact on my parenting than anything else I have done. It allows me to respond to my own needs and be a better parent to all of my children—foster, adopted and biological, and to respond to their needs rather than becoming triggered by their behaviors.

What are the top three life-value scripts you use when parenting? Talk to us about the importance of the words and how you choose them.

1) Can you say that again with respect? 2) Are you asking or telling? 3) Can you use your words? Bonus: Kind hands, kind words.

Not all scripts work for each family and household, so it’s about what this particular child needs to meet their needs and doesn’t trigger them. Scripts should be short and to the point. If too many words are used, the meaning is lost, especially if the child is dysregulated, as our brains don’t function optimally when we are triggered.

What percentage of the time do you have to parent with TBRI correctly to see change?

TBRI research tells us that we must only parent effectively 30% of the time for the approach to have a positive impact. We’re all human, we make mistakes and we fail sometimes. No one will be or has had perfect parents, not even those who grew up in good, attachment-rich families. We’re all broken in some way, and we all have needs.

The good news is we all have opportunities to redo poor behavior or words. Although we can’t go back and change the timeline, by offering and/or asking for a redo, caregivers teach children how to manage mistakes and provide learning opportunities in making compassionate choices.

TBRI is full of good news—hope for connecting with a child you care so much about. Learn more about ways to parent with TBRI in the book, The Connected Parent. Our clinical team would be honored to support you as you implement these principles in your home and family life. Our next interview-style post will further highlight parental self-care—another important strategy in loving youth with trauma.

Things I know about God

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’ll be sharing a new series–”Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Enjoy this story from foster mom Sheila Wagler-Mills as she helps her foster children manage well during the health crisis.

With her foster children being home due to coronavirus, Encourage foster mom Sheila gave a journal to each of them with questions to spur their writing. One day Sheila left instructions to write “Five Things I Know About God.” Her preteen foster daughter responded to the task with seven noteworthy answers. (more…)