Thursday, April 10, 2014

My Life was Changed by This Conference, Part 1

Empowered to Connect -- A Conference Review

Last weekend, John and I attended an adoption/foster conference called Empowered to Connect, and after reviewing everything we've learned, I'd love to share some nuggets of wisdom from the conference with all of you.

I could go on for days about this stuff, it was just that good. But I'll spare you all the minor details and give you more summarizing stuff. However, if you are an adoptive/foster parent, considering adopting/fostering, or even have never adopted/fostered but have biological kids, or you work with kids on a regular basis, I urge you to go to this conference!! It was absolutely fantastic, completely based in science, and so very practical.

The conference mainly consisted of videos and talks given by Dr. Karyn Purvis, a research psychologist who's devoted the past twelve years to developing research-based intervention for at-risk children, and Michael & Amy Monroe, proud parents of four adopted children.

It seems there's one more Empowered to Connect conference this year in Washington, D.C. during September. If you live close, here's my advice: GO!! And use their half-off code (FOCUS) when you register as a couple; it'll reduce the cost to $35 total! So cheap for all the priceless knowledge you'll gain.

If you can't make it to this conference, don't fret! The whole thing was led by several wonderful individuals who have written lots of books on all this stuff. So buy some of their books, go to the Empowered to Connect website, read their stories, watch some videos, listen to recordings of their talks. You will not be disappointed.

Because this conference was just chock-full of awesomel quotable quotes, I figured using some of said quotes would be the best way to guide you through our experience at the conference. But before I get to that, I must preface by saying I am not the expert. Heck, we don't even have kids yet, so I barely know what I'm talking about! I'm merely summarizing what I heard from them. So don't beat me up if you don't agree with what I say or if what I say is unclear. Instead, just go to the conference and learn from the real professionals. I promise you won't regret it!

Dr. Purvis in action. (I stole this picture from the Empowered to Connect website!)

Alright, here goes...

"Your child has a different brain, body, biology."

I'll start with the most shocking thing we learned: adopted children typically have different brains, bodies, and biology than non-adopted kiddos, and we're not just talking about kids adopted when they're older. This is about newborns too, because a pregnancy that leads to an adoption plan is typically not a stress-free pregnancy. Our baby grows in that stress, which rewires our adopted child's brain, and leads to sensory processing deficits in the future, among other challenges. Our adopted child is more prone to fight, flight, or freeze in stressful or over-stimulating situations. Our adopted child may have trouble transitioning to and from difference daily tasks (going from homework to dinner or home to school). Our adopted child may display more defiant behavior than normal.

The good news is this: All of the challenges can be overcome! And it starts with connection. As Michael Monroe said in one of his talks, "Our kids were wounded by relationship and, by God's design, they will be healed by relationship." Relationship is the key. Connecting is the magic solution. And being mindful of our child's challenges is important too. We need to learn how to recognize the difference between a behavior problem and a brain problem (by brain problem, we mean they can't help it -- it's how they're wired). We need to see beyond the negative behavior and meet the needs of the child's body, soul, and spirit.

So how do we do that? ...

"Consider giving your child a 'time-in' instead of a 'time-out.'"

Well, one great suggestion is to change 'time-outs' to 'time-ins.' Pull close to your child in the moments you'd normally push them away. You know what I'm talking about -- those frustrating moments when your child is talking back or throwing a nutty over not being able to color on the walls. Normally, we'd want to send the child away to a time-out corner or reprimand them. However, this is not building the connection the our child so desperately needs and craves. So instead, try to meet their needs in another way, by pulling them close and spending time together, AKA a 'time-in.'

First, ask them to use kind words instead of talking back. Let them have a 'do over' until their words are more polite. You may need to hold and comfort them by squeezing them tight and connecting through loving eye contact in order to soothe them to the point of conversation. Once they're calm enough to express their needs, let them cool off by offering some sort of playful, structured, calming, or protective activity... something to help the sensory overload. Hand feed your child a snack. Go for a walk and have a calm conversation with them. Let them snuggle under a weighted blanket. Or let them pick out a soothing scent that they like to turn to when they're  feeling blue.

Some may argue and say, "But my child needs a consequence for their behavior!!" I'd like to counter with a great point Michael & Amy Monroe made this past weekend: "Consequences cut off where we want to go with our child. Connecting with your child is not 'rewarding bad behavior,' it's meeting their needs." I don't know about you, but I'd much rather meet my child's physical, spiritual, and emotional needs than find myself in a three-year-old vs. adult power struggle. Sure, consequences are a natural part of life, but they don't need to be the dominating force when we correct and redirect our children.

Overall, let your child have a voice. Offer them options when they're going through a rough moment. "Do you want to snuggle and chat or play with playdough?" They'll feel empowered by options, continue to grow their connection with you, rewire their brains so they know how to handle sensory processing overload in the future by themselves, and open up to you in ways you never thought possible. This is especially true of adopted children who experienced trauma, stress, or neglect before being brought home to their new family.

"The toughest kids have the most tender hearts and the most need for nurture." 

Along the same lines, we need to remember that the toughest behavior often comes from the sweetest children who need us the most.

Dr. Purvis told us a tragic, yet beautiful story about an adopted child who was just incredibly difficult to work with, but only because no one had truly connected with her. She was adopted will into her teens, I believe from Romania, previously a child of a gypsy family who used to have to beg and steal to survive. She was in a psychiatric hospital and had already been through several psychologists, with a record of pinning them to the ground and violently beating them up within minutes of them trying to work with her.

Dr. Purvis's approach was different. The first thing she did? She gave that child a voice, and in the most creative way. She had a giant container of bubble gum and offered the child as many pieces as she'd like. But before she could have a piece, she had to ask politely. Each time she asked, Dr. Purvis would respond with a cheerful "yes!" That young lady ended up getting 27 pieces of Double Bubble that day, while Dr. Purvis put 27 "yesses" in that kiddo's bank. She was building her up, giving her a voice, giving her a memory of success after several years of feeling like a failure.

Within the week, Dr. Purvis spent with her, that young lady was majorly changed. She never once harmed Dr. Purvis and on her last day with her, she told her she didn't want to leave. What warm words from a previously hard-to-"deal"-with kiddo who just wanted to be connected.

"Think about who your team is. Who is walking this journey with you?"

The people who journey with you will shape your journey. Surround yourself with people who support you through and through. Adopting and fostering are certainly not the same as raising bio children, so find people who understand what you're going through and are willing to help in the right ways. If you can't find folks who have adopted or fostered near you, educate your friends and family so they can become the right support. Don't be afraid to speak up for this wonderful yet challenging thing you're doing.

Join a community or church support group. Find others in your area that are sharing a similar journey and develop a safe network of trusted friends. If there is not a ministry in your community or local church, consider starting one.

Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations on professionals' reputations of understanding children from hard places. Find a pediatrician, an occupational therapist, and a counselor who specializes in working with at-risk and/or adopted children.

Whew! That's a lot of review already. How about we take a break here and reconvene tomorrow? I've got four more stellar nuggest of wisdom to share with you, so check back in the morning for one awesome Empowered to Connect wrap up.


  1. I LOVE this! I can't wait to read more!!! I am hoping and praying that, if all goes well with our talks this summer, my husband would consider traveling with me to this conference in September! He is the type of guy that responds well to sensory experiences--i.e. hearing from someone's personal stories, relating to them directly, etc. etc. rather than just reading a book/watching a video. I KNOW this would be great for him! Thanks again for sharing, so exciting!!

    1. Thanks for reading through the whole thing. It got a little bit long, but there were just so many great points to make. I'm so happy you enjoyed the info. It really is wonderful! You would just love the conference so much! I really hope and pray the husband will join you. :)

  2. Fascinating tips. Thanks for the heads up about the conference in D.C. We live very close to DC so I will talk to Ecce about going to it. We are definitely interested in adopting but the whole process seems so overwhelming. Did they say anything about how to raise inter-racial kids (is that the right term?)? Or the unique difficulties with adopting interracial children? We are very interested in adopting an interracial child but want to learn more about the difficulties. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. Hi, Mr. M! I really hope you and Ecce can make it to the conference, especially if you're considering adoption! I think "inter-racial" works. :) I tend to use "transracial" myself. The conference didn't specially focus on transracially adopted kiddos at any point, but several of the families we heard from or saw movie clips about were transracial through adoption, including Michael & Amy Monroe and their 4 kids. I think the whole point was that this stuff works for every child. :)

      I know what you're saying though about the unique differences in adopting transracially verses adopting a child of your own race. John and I have discerned this quite a bit, actually, and I plan on writing a post on "Discerning Transracial Adoption" very soon, especially because not many people write about it on blogs. I will say, three of the best resources on transracial adoption I've encountered so far are -- "Come Rain or Shine" by Rachel Garlinghouse, Rachel's blog --, and "Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?" by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. I hope that helps! Thanks for reading! :)

    2. Thanks this was very very helpful. Looking forward to learning more about this topic and we can't wait to read your post on discerning transracial adoption!

    3. Cant wait to read this post too. We've felt kind of alone in trying to figure out how to discern this.

  3. I really do believe what you are saying sounds wonderful in theory but putting all of that into practice is another...I've been to many trainings on child dev, working with at-risk kids, etc...sometimes you just need to give the child some space...I like the idea of a quiet area with books, stuffed animals, etc rather than me hugging, or invading that angry child's space. I believe as a potential parent I might need some space too. I may have to walk away, count to three, deep breathe and come back to the child. That is okay too. Sometimes redirection does work. I had to walk away when I had a student having a rough time...I had to re-think my strategies and I couldn't do it right there and then. I don't know...there's so much information out there on how to parent...I do believe it's good info...but how you are going to use that info and put it into practice is based on you as an individual and your individual child. The question is how you were raised? When you were mad, did your mom hug you? Just my thoughts. That conf does sound interesting though.

    1. I completely agree with what you're saying! And that's why it's best to give kids options when it comes to them having a defiant or emotional break-down moment. Some kids do not want to be touched because of physical abuse or assault they experienced in the past. These kids would do much better to go to a quiet area, or listen to music that soothes them, or do any of the other great things you've listed. Also, Dr. Purvis recommended pseudo-touch, where you don't touch the child, but you hover your arm around their shoulder like you're almost touching them. This lets the child know you're trying to connect and you care about them without invading their personal space.

      And sometimes we, the adult, need a break from the situation too. It's better to take a step back, breeeeathe, processes, and re-enter the situation when you're calm and ready to meet the needs of the child than to go off the handle and yell. It's just healthy and makes a lot of sense to need to step away sometimes. We're all human with real emotions after all!

      How did you know I was going write about how you were raised and how it affects your parenting style tomorrow? :)

      Thanks for reading!

  4. That conference sound A-MAZE-ing...thanks for sharing! I want to go. Will they have more in the future?

    1. I bet they will! The last one in 2014 is in DC in December, but I'm almost positive they'll do a bunch of them in 2015 too!

  5. I am finally getting around to reading this and this conference sounds amazing. I wish they would come to the west coast! Thanks for sharing! Can't wait to read part 2!

    1. Thanks for reading! I bet they'll make it there someday! Or perhaps it's a good excuse to take a vacation to another city. ;)


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