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
A podcast I was interviewed for on trauma-informed parenting- Trauma-Informed Parenting: A FFP Coaching Call with Lesley Joy Richie