Davia was a NWFL Affiliate who specialized in working with children and adolescents from a psychoanalytic perspective and was based in Bellingham. Davia tended to use a Jungian approach often utilizing art and image-based methods including dream work with her clients, young and old. We chatted with her here about different ways to process feelings.
How do you work with kids when they don’t have language for what they are feeling?
I find in the case of working with kids who have limited language for what they are feeling, taking things to an imaginal realm helps. If you ask a kid to tell or draw you a story, their feelings will be in there, with more space for complexity (the feeling has a specific face, perhaps character, in a specific context that wouldn’t be able to surface if we stuck to the literal). If I do have to ask about things directly, I’ll have more body-based inquiries. “How did your tummy feel when mom said….” etc.
Talk to us about the importance of letting kids feel the breadth of their emotions.
When kids (and adults!) can experience the full breadth of emotions, they are less likely to narrow in on one emotion or thought in repetition. An example would be lumping entire experiences into only sadness or anger, or distraction from feelings that can’t be related to at all which can look like hyperactivity, forgetfulness, compulsion and fear. If one can learn to value that full range of feeling, the default assessments won’t rule the roost!
Talk to us about this idea of trauma ‘hiding’ when the brain isn’t able to compute what is happening.
I think of trauma as another word for an experience we don’t have capacity to fully feel. Often trauma is worked with by a person in ways that aren’t exactly recognized as thoughts or feelings. It falls outside of a thinkable or recognizable realm by definition, but it isn’t lost. It goes somewhere.
Does trauma always look like one huge event? Could you give us an example of a ‘smaller’ trauma?
In this way, smaller traumas happen all the time. Any time your mind has to attempt to put something off in order to continue because it doesn’t know how to experience it, that’s trauma.
So, everyone experiences trauma. Trauma is built into human development. Our mind grows to a point where it doesn’t recognize itself and gets organized using the tools available – largely other people’s example.
Talk about validating emotions like anger, especially in the context of domestic violence.
We learn what certain emotions feel like by seeing them on another’s face, and learn what to do about them through others’ actions too. So, if someone has only seen violent anger, connecting with their genuine feeling and affect could be difficult, but necessary work. It would be really important for such a person to find a safe place to experience strong emotion and get familiar with how it feels to them particularly.
In my work with children especially, though certainly with adults as well, I will meet folks who deny experiencing anger if they’ve seen it predominately violently, or will recognize it as something else (sadness, depression, anxiety). Another might only feel/express anger paired with violence towards themself or others. Or perhaps the anger will be severed and pop up in some psychosomatic way. Because anger is an important part of the emotional spectrum, it’s important to learn to experience it with all of its colors, not only the stunted expression.
Can you talk about your work around images, dreams and sensory experiences?
I work with folk’s dreams and images and sensory experiences because those images and sensory feelings seem to hold units of psychic content, made by the particular mind. It’s like I could talk about anger with a client all day, where they’ve seen it before in their family and all that. But if we’re not getting to the particular mind’s images and specific containers of anger, it’s still gonna be pretty superficial work. In this way, my clinical mind is pretty Jungian. I use other methods and borrow modalities but I can’t un-see the archetypal stuff.
Tell us about how you as a counselor experience someone’s “felt” presence.
A “felt sense” of folks is important here too. How they sit, how they present, what it feels like to be with them gives me a referential point to start that work. The images and feelings that get transferred to me can have enormous psychic content for my client, and we are learning together what it means to tend to them.
Do you have a theory of change?
Change looks like learning to be a companion to oneself. That contains all the buzzword-concepts like containment, self-soothing, self care, mindfulness and all that but I see those things as for the sake of the psychic content having a place to live and be welcomed in order to work itself out. Like, complexes can’t be eradicated…but they can be given some space to breathe, and to open/loosen some of those associations, so a person has some creativity, they aren’t at the mercy of the associated compulsions any longer.
Are there any resources you would like to share with our audience?
Audre Lorde – she’s rooted in identifying cultural containers of psychic content (particularly in regard to racism and sexism) and teasing out those complex-hubs. I’m so grateful for her work. Check out “Sister Outsider.”
I also return to Bell Hooks a lot. I like memoir as a genre because it’s like I’m watching someone working poetically with their experience, using that inner companion. It’s helpful to me clinically. Check out “Teaching to Transgress.”
Julie DeBoer is a NWFL affiliate therapist who specializes in trauma, abuse, and food and body issues. She has a background in eating disorder treatment, and she is passionate about helping clients develop new ways of relating to themselves and their bodies.
Tell us about the work you do with clients around food and body issues.
Most of my clients have strained relationships with their bodies and struggle to varying degrees to accept, love, and nourish their bodies. They experience their bodies as places of pain and shame rather than safety and comfort, and many have learned to fight against their bodies rather than allying with them. For the population I work with, this often involves disordered eating and exercise patterns. Many of my clients have become both fixated on their bodies and simultaneously highly estranged from them. They have learned to resist or override their physical needs and cues rather than listening and attending to them. My desire is to help my clients restore a sense of belonging in their own bodies. In that way, I really see my work as a therapist as the slow and gentle process of bringing people back home to themselves.
Can you speak to the idea of the body as home?
From the time we are born until we die, our bodies carry us through the world, and they are really our only constant. Our other physical houses are temporary and transient, but we never leave our bodies. Our bodies contain us–physically, spiritually, and emotionally–and are meant to be places of safety and comfort. If “home” is a place where we are known and loved and cared for and free to be ourselves, I believe that our own bodies are meant to be the place we experience that most fully.
So what happens when that home (the body) is unsafe?
All too often, our bodies endure harm and violence, and for survivors of these experiences, the body can feel extremely unsafe. For a survivor of trauma, the body is a place of immense vulnerability and betrayal, and many have the experience of feeling trapped in their bodies rather than being at home there. To live in the body is terrifying, and yet, there is no way to escape. So people who have suffered harm often develop ways of psychologically leaving their bodies by disconnecting and dissociating, because staying feels unbearable.I believe that so often, patterns of addiction and disordered eating and self-harm are ways that people struggle with the reality of living in a body that feels unsafe.
Talk about helping people identify and understand patterns that have been informed by trauma
In my experience, helping people identify the links between trauma and current behavioral patterns is often so essential to the healing process. When people can begin to understand why their body has responded in the ways that it has and how it has been wired to protect them, they can begin to develop a sense of empathy, gratitude, and ultimately trust for their bodies.
How might trauma affect a person’s experience with their own body
Trauma is, by definition, an experience that overwhelms our system and exceeds our capacity to process it in the moment. Our bodies have an ingenious way of helping us survive these experiences by creating a split between our mind and body and essentially allow our minds to leave while our bodies endure the traumatic experience. For many, this split continues long after the traumatic event is over and leads survivors to fundamentally distrust their bodies. They experienced their body as powerless during the traumatic event and may feel that their body has betrayed them. Many trauma survivors hold conscious or unconscious resentment toward their body for responding as it did. It’s also important to recognize that when we feel powerless, we often respond by doubling down on controlling behaviors to try to increase a sense of power, and this frequently plays out in body-based processes such as eating disorders.
When you combine all of these factors, the unfortunate reality is that trauma sets survivors up in an almost uncanny way to have highly contentious relationships with their bodies.
How might feeling anger be terrifying for a trauma survivor?
To be connected with anger is to be connected with a sense of power. I believe that most trauma survivors experience immense ambivalence regarding their own power. For some, anger can become a means of trying to protect themselves and compensate for the experience of powerlessness. For others, feeling anger may increase their experience of feeling out of control, and they put their anger on lockdown. Particularly for survivors of abuse or domestic violence, anger can feel quite dangerous and actually expose them to greater harm, so they learn to bury it at all costs. Even long after the threat has passed, anger can feel terrifying and difficult to access. I think learning to engage anger and connect with power can be an immensely important component of the healing process for survivors of trauma, but it is often a long and very difficult process.
Talk about befriending or reconciling with your body
Our bodies are created for survival. They are wired in all kinds of intricate and incredible ways to keep us alive, and when we can begin to understand how our bodies have been working our entire lives to keep us safe, we can start to trust them and ally with them rather than fighting against them.
Tell us about the mindfulness part of your work
I use mindfulness and body awareness practices frequently in my work, especially with clients seeking help with food and body issues. Our bodies are constantly giving us data about ourselves and the world around us, and every time we pause and choose to listen to these physical sensations and cues, it is a way of telling our bodies, “I trust you.” When we practice mindfulness, we are returning home to our bodies, even if only for a moment. Mindfulness does not magically take away the fear or anxiety that we hold in our bodies, but through repetition it slowly increases our capacity to feel safe there.
For many of your clients, there is also a faith component to trauma work. What does someone do with the question, “If God is good and loves me, how did this happen,” or “Where was God when…?
Part of the crisis of trauma is meaninglessness. Trauma is suffering with no explanation or purpose, and for many survivors, this raises questions about God. Part of the healing work of trauma is meaning-making and finding ways to integrate the traumatic experience into their belief system. Many of my clients of faith have found meaning in experiencing God as a co-sufferer. Elie Weisel is a Holocaust survivor who writes about the horrific experience of watching the execution of a Jewish child. He writes, “Behind me, I heard a man asking, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where [God] is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows.’” For many of my clients, this sense of God suffering with them has brought a profound sense of comfort and meaning.
Do you have any resources you would like to share with us?
Food Psych podcast by Christy Harrison
“I’m Taking My Body Back” TED Talk by Rupi Kaur
Night, by Elie Weisel
The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk
To get in touch with Julie please call 206-880-3430 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Yvette is a NWFL affiliate therapist specializing in trauma and abuse. Her clients often include women who are recovering from psychological, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and physical abuse.
One of the areas you specialize in is recovery from narcissistic abuse. Can you tell us what that means?
Narcissistic abuse is a particular form of psychological abuse committed by someone who has high narcissistic traits. Those who have suffered narcissistic abuse often struggle to feel they own their own mind from the cycles of manipulation, gas-lighting, and interpersonal exploitation that have conditioned them to focus on the needs of their abuser instead of their own. This often makes survivors feel crazy, when in reality, they are far from it. My work with survivors is to provide them a safe space to begin to feel and untangle all that has been manipulated in their relationship with a narcissistic person so they can begin to trust their gut, which has often been denied in the cycle of abuse.
How might one’s intuition become injured?
This is where gas-lighting comes into play. Gas-lighting is when an abuser intentionally makes you distrust your perception of reality and question your sanity. And there are many subtle ways this happens. Over time, as this continues, victims lose a sense of grounding and dismiss what their gut is telling them. In this, their intuition becomes stifled, or injured. It doesn’t register danger, threat, or violence the same way as those who have not experienced abuse. What is important to point out, is that while our intuition can be injured, it can also be healed. Learning to listen to our gut, trust what it is telling us, and then act on it, are ways we feed and strengthen our intuition.
Talk to us about those ruminating thoughts that survivors of abuse often suffer from.
There is much to say about the dynamic of rumination. On one level, rumination is a distraction from the terror and grief of facing the reality that the person who is supposed to cherish and love us the most is not. Worse yet, they are actually harming us. When a survivor ruminates, they are trying to make meaning, and usually land in a place of self-blame or self-annihilation. This is a conditioned response to abuse and what keeps a victim stuck in the cycle of abuse. What needs to be said, is that at some point in life (likely childhood), it served as a means of survival. To blame ourselves and work harder is often easier than facing the wrath and terror of calling the abuser out. And in childhood, calling out abuse is often not an option. In my experience, what is usually under rumination is a sense of fear, panic, or dread. And it can be so hard-wired in us that rumination is often well underway before we are even aware it is occurring. But this too, can heal over time. Once we feel safe, we can learn to observe rumination in ourselves, be curious about what it serves, extend compassion, and then begin to imagine new ways to direct that energy.
Can you speak to the chemical addiction in the brain that happens with abuse?
When abuse occurs, there is a heightened sense of arousal, meaning our bodies are very alert. This requires certain neurochemicals to dump in our body. These chemicals are a cocktail of stress chemicals, as well as bonding chemicals, and the rise and fall of these chemicals leave us in a state that needs soothing. They are very powerful and cause intense cravings to reconnect with the abuser. This is why it is often hard for victims to leave. Getting out of an abusive relationship is like giving up a drug. Initially, everything in the survivor’s body and brain will feel compelled to go back to the abuser. That’s why it is important for survivors to understand how their biology is affecting their cycle of abuse. The antidote for this addiction is sustained healthy connection, which is why safe friends, support groups, and therapy are important for survivors to heal. To understand more about the neurochemical process, read this article.
Do you find that women in abusive situations are usually very competent?
Absolutely. Especially when it comes to narcissistic abuse. By definition, a narcissistic lacks a sense of self, so they prey on competent partners to help fill the void they cannot acknowledge in themselves. Women in abusive relationships are often insightful, empathetic, attuned, intelligent, self-reflective, and hard-working. In the beginning of abusive relationships, abusers will praise their victims for these strengths, but over time, they begin to envy and resent them, and that is when the psychological abuse begins.
Tell us about your theory of change.
Gregory Bateson said, “Things are what they are because of the way they relate to other things.” This is true not only for nature, but for humans. We are what we are because of the people, places, cultures, and ideologies we have related to. To me, this speaks of Trinitarian theology and a model for relationship. We are meant to be connected, yet individuated, and the field of neuroscience has confirmed this: we are open loop systems designed for attachment. To change, we need a safe and healthy relationship where we can explore all that has contributed to shape us as people. As a trauma and abuse therapist who uses interpersonal and narrative therapy, I believe the stories of our lives are held in the body. If you think about it, the only “thing” that has been with us in every moment of our life is our body. In order to change, we have to listen and engage how stories are held in it. When we do this with safe others, we are given opportunities for reparative experiences that heal and move us along in our healing journeys.
Can you talk about how survivors often learn to live in their brain because it’s not safe in their body?
When our primary attachment figure who is supposed to love us, harms us instead, it feels too scary to live in the body. This is a coping mechanism. Like rumination, it protects us from feeling the terror of abuse and neglect. Often, it was learned first in childhood. In therapy one of the main goals is to create safety so we can begin to be curious and feel what our bodies hold. This is also how we begin to repair and nourish our intuition.
What does internalized trauma look like?
To me, internalized trauma is more of a sound than a look. Meaning, there are scripts we say over and over again to ourselves that are accusatory, dismissive, harsh, unloving, dogmatic, etc. They are the sentences that are usually behind the sentences we first hear ourselves say internally. When we listen closely, we realize these scripts serve the narratives of those who benefitted from our abuse. And, in my opinion, that’s the worst part of trauma: we learn to become complicit in abuse against ourselves. It’s what evil wants. As a therapist, that’s what I get to disrupt, and I can’t think of a higher calling.
Talk to us about what you call survival mode vs. creation mode when it comes to abuse survivors.
It may sound obvious, but survivors know how to survive. It’s what they do. When in an abusive relationship, survivors are living in survival mode. When confronted with choice, it is an easy decision: go with whatever helps you survive and mitigate further harm. But when a survivor has moved out of an abusive relationship and threat is no longer present, choice is no longer based on survival, but on creation. There is freedom to choose and create. And to many survivors, that can be terrifying. It can be hard to trust it is possible to move forward freely, and without abusive relational consequences. Plus, it can expose ways we never got to develop certain abilities or capacities. And that can bring up grief. Survivors need a lot of support and celebration in this phase. It is a time of individuating and deepening in our sense of self. It also feeds and strengthens our intuition. It can be both exhilarating and scary at first, and that is completely normal.
Would you give us that quote you love by Dorothy Allison?
“Throughout my life somebody has always tried to set the boundaries of who and what I will be allowed to be. What is common to these boundary lines is that their most destructive power lies in what I can be persuaded to do to myself – the walls of fear, shame, and guilt I can be encouraged to build in my own mind.”
Yvette recommends Healing From Hidden Abuse, by Shannon Thomas, LCSW as a straightforward and easy read for those dealing with psychological abuse.
Yvette has offices in Seattle and Kirkland. To get in touch with her, please visit www.WhisperingTreeTheapy.com, or call (239) 410-7084.
Bethany is a NWFL affiliate therapist who often works around areas of relational anxieties, grief work and coming of age exploration. Her clients include adults desiring to understand more of their internal fabric and encounter their narratives in a larger way. She speaks to us here about hope for change.
Do you have a theory of change?
Change is quiet and slow. We have been taught and shown how to survive in the world and how to receive what we need. When we notice we want to change something about ourselves, it may mean we are at odds or have dis-ease with part(s) of ourselves. Often this can lead to shame or guilt, and the idea of change can immediately relieve the shame experience. I believe that shame is very helpful in offering a place to notice where we both want more and where were not given enough. This starting place begins the process of small shifts as we begin to explore the stories where shame was experienced.
Talk to us about trauma somatic work.
The body holds and stores our experiences of trauma. Our bodies are deeply wise and intuitive, and cannot hide the truth of our traumas. For my clients, somatic work includes noticing, listening and creating space for our bodies to be heard and felt. It means paying attention to when the stomach hurts, when the headache shows up, where the body freezes or wants to run, etc. Specifically, it means noticing where trauma hijacked the client’s ability to process the event/experience and so the body absorbs the traumatic moment(s). By exploring both the somatic and narrative experiences of trauma, there can be integration and deep care for the mind/body/soul.
How might someone get to change a story they’ve been told about themselves?
The process of unpacking someone’s story requires witness. We can retell the same story over and over, but we need an advocate to pause the story and offer space to explore more. Through kindness and the allowance for grit, fight and grief, stories can be untangled and our truths can be known.
Can you speak to the beauty in exploration and coming of age moments?
Discovering parts of oneself on the brink of newness is stunning work. When we are on the edge of changes or shifts, many emotions and past experiences can flood to the surface making it difficult to trust our needs, wants and hopes for ourselves. By having space to create and wonder and grieve, one can experience their story and desired stories differently.
Talk to us about wanting truth for ourselves and our stories.
I believe in finding our truth. Many of us have childhoods and adulthoods where our experiences were not validated and accepted. Or, we had to abandon ourselves to receive what we needed. This leaves us unable to recognize reality and claim our truth. When we can grieve our relational disruptions and severing, we get closer to seeing our truth and honoring the impact we feel today. When we find our inner integrity, we get choice in our stories and we can begin to craft our ever shifting ground into something sturdy to stand on.
Talk about how once you become sensitive to issues of domestic violence you can see it in places where it isn’t overt.
DV and abuse can be very quiet and/or loud. The quietness of harm is a piece of the work I do with clients through exploring and offering a place to name the violence they encountered that had been normalized.
You’ve mentioned that after a season of intense secondary trauma, you looked to boredom/stillness as a form of healing and self care. Can you tell us more about this and how you practice self care now?
In my experience, trauma speeds things up. It creates chaos and at times a manic response to match the traumatic experience(s). After a long season of encountering both a trauma and secondary traumas, my body craved stillness and my mind needed boredom. To honor these needs, I created a lifestyle that reflected this. I worked a monotonous, predictable job, lived by a body of water, and tended towards much solo time. After about 8 months, it felt like my mind was ready to create and risk again, and my body was calibrating. Currently, my self-care comes through careful sensory input and intentional rhythms. Grounding and predictability are important to me, so currently I have a Palo Santo I burn each morning, coffee to grind and some Nils Fram to listen to. These shift across seasons, but my intentionality around my senses and rhythms are deeply important to me for healing and care.
In this time of pandemic, where are you finding comfort and hope?
Hope, for me, has always been an escape of the present pain and discomfort. A fantasy, if you will, that has protected the fullness of the present grief. This has changed its flavor. I am encountering hope in the daily experience of being human. I find hope in the wrestling of grief and anger, rather then what I need or want the future to offer. In our current climate, I feel hope in the growing spaces for voices to be heard and pain to be known. I am currently reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. This is a stunning text that offers poetic language around the making sense of pain and grief.
You can connect with Bethany here
Lesley Joy Ritchie is an affiliate therapist of Northwest Family Life and works as an attachment informed trauma therapist. Lesley centers her work on the understanding that what is broken in relationship is healed in relationship. Her specialties include working with families who are either in the process of fostering/adopting or who have adopted a child with developmental trauma, as well as trauma-informed individual counseling (children and adults), general family therapy and working with clients healing from domestic violence. We spoke with her about parenting and attachment.
Tell us about the PATCh program.
PATCh stands for Parenting Adopted and Traumatized Children. This program is designed to help build a foundation of attachment and attunement for foster/adoptive families as they navigate the very difficult and chaotic process of rebuilding after significant trauma. Our program provides parents with the necessary framework for understanding the impact of trauma on the developing brain as well as how to parent a child with significant trauma. We walk parents through Trauma 101, parenting strategies for kids who are easily triggered into fight, flight, freeze reactions, self-attunement skills for parents and self-regulation skills for parents, and attunement building between parent and child through play and a variety of connective experiences.
You’ve said that trauma creates a superhighway in the brain. Talk about changing the trauma cycle to one of attachment.
This is where we get to see the magic of connection and when we get to watch the tragic brokenness of past relationships become restored by safe and secure present relationships. Whether a child or adult, the reactive impulse is a cry for help. The healing begins to occur when we can replace the maladaptive self-soothing or reactive parenting response with an attuned and connective response of affirming feelings and meeting needs. The more we respond to self or others with this attunement and care, the easier it will become. This is because the superhighway of fear and rage becomes increasingly calmer and less frantic as the hurt is being nurtured in a bond of trust vs. rejected or threatened in a bond of abuse and neglect.
What is Filial Play?
Filial play is the open and free place space for parent and child to build this connective, healing bond in a therapeutic setting. In a few words, the child gets to be in charge and to feel full agency in a safe play space where the parent does not direct or correct. The goal for the play is to see the world through the child’s eyes and to find ways to mirror delight and synchronicity. The parent does a lot of mirroring with body position, facial affect and verbally. It is a beautiful space for healing.
Talk to us about kids expressing their needs in prickly ways.
We all express our needs in prickly ways when we are in some degree of distress. If the distress has reached the level of severe abuse and neglect, the prickles will look like a child being the tiny dictator that is running the household (lots of need for control, because they have lost all control to unsafe adults in the past). Another prickle I see often is long and drawn out rages that send a child into a state of hyperarousal with a racing heart rate, difficulty breathing, etc. What is being expressed here is a need for an infantile kind of steady soothing and presence that is not shaming or corrective- often the child’s emotional age is much younger than their physical age.
Can you share about creating a high nurture, high structure environment?
I think this differs depending on who the parent is and who the child is. The language I use with parents for structure is setting limits and creating a daily rhythm. So much of this process of attachment is not easy to define. It seems evident that all humans seem to thrive with a healthy mixture of freedom, creativity, routine and rhythm. I encourage parents to get to know the child and to look closely at what times of the day the child is more emotionally resilient and which parts of the day they are more emotionally reactive. The child will need a lot more nurture in those stressful parts of the day and some of the schedule will need to become more flexible, but overall life needs to be predictable and consistent- especially the emotional response of the parent(s).
Talk to us about parenting methods that affect real behavioral change but that are damaging to the child/parent relationship, such as yelling.
Every parent knows that yelling at a child is not the ideal way of correcting misguided behavior. Every parent does it at one time or another and often parents tell me that it is hard not to yell because it is the only thing that “works”. When we as parents say this it is important to look at what we mean by the word “works”. What we usually mean here is that the child submits to us and follows our direction. What we want is real change in the child, not a fear-based appeasement of the parent. Yelling works in the short-term but makes more “work” for the parent in the long term as the nervous system just becomes more dysregulated and the trauma reactions become more ingrained.
How could the parent / child power differential overlap with themes of domestic violence?
When humans are distressed we seek to self-soothe. When children are constantly powerless in an abusive/neglectful dynamic with adults, they learn to either submit to the scary adult or fight for power and control in a variety of maladaptive ways. The deep seated belief becomes, “I’ll just disappear until the scary person goes away,” or “I will never let anyone push me around again. I am in control from now on,” etc. Thus, the trauma reaction is the same as in adults and we can find ourselves in an abusive relationship where we are the one in need of all power and control or we may be the one who disappears to make it stop.
Often the trauma that is locked inside a foster kid’s body can get transferred to the foster parent. Talk to us about the importance of foster parents caring for their own mind and body, and how they might do that.
You can call this vicarious trauma or secondary trauma. It is a real phenomenon and it often looks like depression in how it manifests in the body. We are interconnected as humans, and especially as family members living in the same home. If a child is screaming for over an hour, everyone in the house is on edge. If this happens regularly for weeks and months, then everyone is exhausted, irritated and often burnt out. This is most often the reason for disruption of foster placements. If a family can get the support and care they need early on when a terrified child is placed with them, then the home environment can be preserved for all members living together. If foster parents are healthy (self-attuned) and not reactive and if they know the child’s triggers, many of these huge stress reactions can be largely decreased in frequency and duration and in many cases, eventually eliminated completely.
Talk about how one’s relationship with self can be a healing thing.
What is broken in relationship is healed in relationship… this includes our relationship to ourselves. When we are abused by another person we often blame ourselves, especially as children. When shame and self-loathing take over, the cycle of abuse continues. The focus on soul care and self attunement is THE MOST IMPORTANT ACT for those who have endured severe trauma. Moving from self-hatred to self-acceptance and refusing to abandon and retraumatize the most fragile parts of our soul/spirit/body/mind is the only hope for healing.
What is a 30 second burst of attention and when might parents use it?
Imagine yourself in the kitchen at home, dinner is cooking and you are tired after a long day. Imagine your 7 year old running into the kitchen screaming that her brother keeps locking her out of his room and won’t play with her. She is getting increasingly upset and dysregulated, demanding that you get her into the bedroom. You have the choice to:
A. Tell your daughter that you are cooking and that she needs to find something else to do until dinner is ready and ignore her screaming and kicking you while cooking.
B. You turn down the stove burner, move toward your daughter and down to her level and listen to her story about how mean brother is, show her that her feelings are important to you and focus on meeting a need in the moment (ex. can I pour you a glass of juice and can you help me finish dinner and we will solve this later, I promise). Then end the burst of attention with a silly face competition or a short staring contest.
It takes intention to meet needs and the burst of attention is an intentional but quick way to de-escalate a child’s stress reaction and to help them regulate through connection and attunement.
What are some books you would recommend to parents? How about children’s storybooks?
I love to say that the best book for a parent to read is a book that they want to read. If you don’t like to read books then listen to music, get fresh air, watch a favorite comedian, listen to a podcast that connects to your passion etc. Books are great but there is so much more than books that will get the wind back in your sales. I do love to learn, so here are a few of my favorite books, youtube videos and podcasts that have helped me and those I know on the journey of healing:
Kids books (beneficial for both kids and adults, and everyone between): Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, I love you Through and Through by Caroline Jayne Church
Adult books: The Connected Child by Karen Purvis, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Changes that Heal by Henry Cloud, Conscious Living by Gay Hendricks, The Healing Path by Dan Allender
The Post Institute- Bryan Post’s Daily Dose on Facebook: or on Youtube:
Flourishing Foster Parenting Podcasts
A podcast I was interviewed for on trauma-informed parenting- Trauma-Informed Parenting: A FFP Coaching Call with Lesley Joy Richie
Favorite educational videos with therapist Kati Morton
You can connect with Lesley here or check out the Northwest Trauma Counseling website for more info on the PATCh Program.
Barbara Trantrum is the NWFL Director of Foster Care and Adoption. She is one of the founders of Northwest Trauma Counseling and has been a NWFL affiliate therapist for the last 6 years. She works with both children and adults, often around issues of foster care, adoption and attachment.
You have 7 kids, tell us about the makeup of your family.
Our kids range in age from 9 to 23 and include 2 bio kids and 5 non-traditional kids. Of our non-traditional kids, we have one sibling group of three and two non-related kids. We have children from DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. We received one child through a private agreement with her family whom we are friends with. We foster international refugee children through a UN program. Most of our kids have been with us for either 10 or 12 years, but we have one newer one of less than a year. We are about to adopt our 18-year-old.
How can identifying emotions be difficult for kids with trauma?
Emotional identification is something that often has to be taught, even for typical kids, but for kids with trauma it is much more difficult. Kids with trauma are more easily triggered – making access to those emotions more difficult. For children with trauma, emotional expression can often feel unsafe – for many kids the only thing they can express is anger. Other emotions feel too vulnerable, so any strong emotion that they feel ends up coming out as anger.
How/why do you incorporate art and music into therapy?
Music and art access emotions and feelings in ways that talk alone cannot do. I try to use music and art in fun ways in therapy like playing musical chairs, drumming, playing emotions pictionary, and painting together. I have created books with clients with their art, and done countless art and craft projects.
Tell us about how attachment is formed through mirroring.
We try to help attachment form in many of the ways that attachment forms organically with an infant and child. The attachment cycle of an infant expressing a need and the need being met and that cycle happening a million times over is the basis for healthy attachment.
Mirroring is a normal part of attachment with a baby and a parent during the early stages of development – a mom sticks out her tongue and the baby follows suit. This is the activation of the mirror neurons in the baby’s brain and the beginning of empathy. For children that come from abuse and neglect where there has been an interruption in attachment, it can often really help to activate these mirror neurons. This works best for younger kids, but we encourage parents to do mirroring activities with kids of all ages – things like having kids and parents repeat a pattern on a drum that one person makes, singing songs together, playing games that involve mirroring, etc.
Tell us about working with kids and parents as a unit.
For kids with attachment challenges, they often get into a pattern of what we call “parent shopping,” which is when they aren’t sure of the security of their placement and are always scouting out the next place to go. A sympathetic therapist can make a very tempting target, and that can cause a lot of very tricky dynamics. I want the child to attach to the parent, not to me.
Also, kids often come into therapy thinking that they’re the problem, and the kids are never just the problem – any solution involves the whole family. So I work almost exclusively with kids and parents together. The model of dropping a child off to talk with a therapist for an hour with little contact with the parents just doesn’t work to solve attachment problems for those in foster care and adoption and reinforces that the kid is the problem.
You’ve said that when you parent a kid with trauma, it really brings up your own trauma. Can you expand on why and how to navigate this?
A soldier with childhood trauma is far more likely to get PTSD on the battlefield, and the same is true for a parent. If you have childhood trauma, when your child dysregulates and has a PTSD reaction that could very well set off your own PTSD reaction. Often I work with parents who mostly know what they need to do in parenting, but being able to keep control of their own reactions is tough. For parents with childhood trauma, I recommend that they be in therapy to help them. In my own life when I have sought therapy when my secondary trauma reactions were more than I could handle, and it was enormously helpful. In the interest of the whole family, I also talk a lot about self-care and emotional regulation for everyone in the family.
Talk to us about interracial and international adoption.
International adoption is on a decline currently, as overseas orphan care is shifting to building up foster care and adoption programs in the countries of origin. There still is international adoption happening, especially for special needs children, and for situations like refugees and such.
Interracial adoption is becoming the new norm. In 1996 the federal government legally mandated that race cannot be a factor in adoptive placements, and currently about 40% of adoptions are transracial. Although we often think of transracial adoption as being white parents adopting children of color, I work with parents and children of all combinations.
The most important thing with transracial foster care and adoption is respect and conversation – you never want to adopt from a people group that you don’t respect and enjoy. When you adopt from another ethnic group your family becomes multiethnic, and how your family functions needs to reflect that reality.
The other key is to talk about racial issues, don’t just pretend the child is the same race as the parents and go with that. Studies show that children raised in transracial adoptions do basically the same as same-race adoptions if the parents talk to them about racial issues.
Can you talk about the places where domestic violence and foster care intersect?
It is rare to have a child adopted from foster care at an older age that hasn’t experienced domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the main reasons that kids are in foster care and need new families. Many of the dynamics of domestic violence continue in the dynamics of sibling relationships when parents adopt sibling groups, and we have to talk a lot about power dynamics and control issues. For a child, witnessing domestic violence is just as traumatic as experiencing it done to them.
WA State is experiencing a massive shortage of foster parents, with 1,000 less foster homes available now than 10 years ago, and more kids than ever in the system. What are some ways people might help?
Treehouse is a great place to donate or help, it’s a local organization that helps foster kids in King County. You can also become a CASA voulunteer, or help at the many churches that support foster care ministry. If you are considering foster care and are not quite ready to take the full plunge, you can do something called respite care, which is having foster kids short term to give their regular foster parents a break.
If you are ready to take the plunge, I recommend working with a private foster care agency rather than just with the state, and there are several great ones. Some organizations in the Seattle area that I recommend are Amara, Bethany Christian Services, Olive Crest, and Antioch. If you are interested in fostering refugee foster children, check out Lutheran Community Services. Before committing to an agency, make sure you talk to some people who have used that agency before and ask them about their experiences.
What are some recommendations or resources you have for people who are interested in become foster parents?
Talk to some current foster parents and look into what is involved. But don’t get too intimidated, you don’t have to be a superhero to be a foster parent – just be open to learning and growing.
Find a support group – either through your agency or through your church or community. The time to do this is when you are getting licensed – you will need support when kids hit your house.
The Refresh Conference is a fantastic conference put on every year by Overlake Christian Church, and it is a wealth of information. You can go even if you’re just checking it out! There are also a lot of different agencies there so it can be a great way to get a feel for different agencies all at once.
The movie Instant Family is also a pretty accurate representation of what it’s like to become a foster parent.
Barbara has a book called: The Adoptive Parents’ Handbook: A Guide to
Healing Trauma and Thriving with Your Foster or Adopted Child,
coming out in September 2020. You can connect with her via