By Lisa D. Maynard
Stress is a natural consequence for all parents, and often all the more so for foster and adoptive parents. Research findings suggest that some of the more specific stressors in fostering include the following issues: the traumatic histories of the children, attachment styles and challenges (theirs and ours), blending of family members, mental health concerns, medically fragile children, difficulty negotiating through the bureaucracy, and feeling unappreciated by the system as well as the children they care for.
Stress is not only an issue for the parents, their family systems and their workplace, but also for the children. Parents under extreme stress or chronic stress are at risk for illness affecting the mind, body and spirit. Stress impacts multiple domains of functioning. Sometimes that stress discharges onto those we love most. Self-care is critical to maintaining physical, emotional and mental health. We owe it to our children, our partners and ourselves to be mindful of the impact that stress has on our overall well-being and our ability to keep our children safe.
Understand stress. Children in foster/adoptive families typically have suffered through terrifying experiences that have caused their brains to have a prolonged stress response. In other words, these children’s nervous systems are fried. Depending upon their life events, their temperaments and the interventions received, their behaviors and interactions will vary. As time goes on, certain situations may trigger unexpected, intense emotions and reactions. This fight, flight or freeze response is a basic survival instinct originating from the brain stem (primitive brain). The frontal lobe, the area of the brain which processes reason and logic, shuts down. The adrenal glands immediately start saturating the body with adrenaline, resulting in the increase of heart rate and breathing rate. This, in turn, increases the amount of energy within the muscle cells enabling the body to do whatever is necessary to survive. Run, fight, stop … the response is instinctive, automatic.
Now, if this occurs too frequently, the function of the adrenal glands decreases, causing the body to maintain abnormally high levels of cortisol. This particular hormone wreaks havoc on the body, causing a myriad of health problems, most closely associated with depression, sleep disorders, anxiety and chronic pain. This is TRAUMA.
It hijacks the mind and body, disrupting all aspects of one’s life. These children are fearful of being hurt again, they haven’t learned trust because of the neglect or abandonment they’ve experienced, they are angry because they haven’t felt love and security, and they need patience and time to heal. They need routine and reasonable expectations as they learn to piece their lives back together. They may push away at times because they feel unworthy, but it is so important for them to discover that you can be depended upon. And this is exhausting and stressful for everyone. Fostering children is a difficult task and will challenge the best of us, but the following tips may help to make your path more comfortable so you can enjoy and grow along with your children.
Become attuned. You are a caretaker of children with special needs. You are selfless, loving and generous of heart. And these children have trauma, they have deep pain, and their behaviors can be demanding. And you are human. You will feel stress. Don’t ignore it. Tune in. Notice what is happening in your body, in your mind, to your very spirit. Remember that you must “put on your oxygen mask first” in order to help others in need.
TIP #1: Body-Mind.
The first step in dealing with stress is knowing when you are stressed. Be conscious of your body. Are your shoulders tight? Are you grinding your teeth? Is your breathing shallow? Is your heart rate increasing? Do you feel pain anywhere in your body? And what about those eyebrows? Working on a nice big wrinkle there? Do you have stomach discomfort? Bathroom issues? Or maybe you are unreasonably fatigued. Make comparisons of how your body reacts during both calm and stressful conditions. Do a body scan at different times of the day — notice how you can ease tension by relaxing your shoulders or your jaw, or by closing your eyes and taking several deep belly breaths. Keep a journal, jotting down your responses.
Next, be conscious of your mind. Any negative thoughts going on? Are you beating yourself up about not being the perfect parent? Are you wishing you were somewhere else or in a different time? Are you thinking resentful, angry thoughts? Are you disillusioned with the child or even with yourself? Do you want to escape, maybe to the refrigerator, maybe to Tahiti? Maybe you feel like crying or staying in bed for the weekend. Simply stop and notice. No judgment, no critique.
TIP #2: Breathe.
Yes! There are several breathing exercises that take less than a minute. As stated earlier, stress causes the body to react with quick, shallow breathing, alerting the brain to begin the stress response. By consciously breathing slowly and deeply, the brain will calm down the body by decreasing the heart rate and blood pressure. This in turn allows the brain’s frontal lobe to continue making rational decisions. If you consciously and repeatedly respond to stressors with breathing, your body and mind will eventually become programmed to calm itself without your conscious effort.
If you need some guidance on breathing techniques, check out the following apps:
- Universal Breathing — Pranayama
- Paced Breathing
- Relax Stress and Anxiety Relief
- Prana Breath
- Breathing Zone
TIP #3: Exercise.
Sometimes we are simply too tired to even think about exercise. We think we need to spend 90 minutes in aerobic activity. Start slow, keep it simple. Try 20 minutes of aerobic activity — even if it’s dancing in your kitchen to a few songs on the radio. Or take a brisk walk. Research findings suggest that this is enough to produce the necessary endorphins in your brain to combat stress. If you hate the thought of exercising, then consider it playtime and do something active with your children or friends, like bike riding, hiking or swimming.
Yoga has been used in addressing complex trauma — consider a yoga class for you and your child. Classes that emphasize slow, steady movement, deep breathing and gentle stretching do wonders for stress relief. (Satyananda, Hatha Yoga and Power Yoga). Yoga serves to calm and connect the mind, body and spirit. You don’t have to be flexible, bendable or in “great shape” to give it a try.
TIP #4: Mindfulness meditation.
This is not really meditation, although it can include it, but more so a practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. It has been proven to be such an effective de-stressor that many schools across the country are implementing this as part of their daily activities. Living in the present moment, practicing self-love, being compassionate toward others are some of the basic tenants of this lifestyle. Some resources to check out are:
- mindful.org (guided meditations, soothing music)
- Happify.com (Very short animations that children and adults enjoy)
- YouTube short, guided meditations
- Ted Talks on mindfulness
Tip #5: Express yourself.
Get your creative juices flowing. Research shows that engaging in creative self-expression helps to reduce stress and depression, increases positive emotions, and may even increase immune system function. Creative arts such as dancing, painting, drawing, writing all channel energy in a positive direction and build “cognitive reserve” — just one more powerful mind-body approach to overall wellness.
Find the creative outlet that best fits your personality:
- Gather a group of friends and attend a one-night painting class — creativity and connection.
- Take up music lessons — guitar, piano, harp or tuba — find an instrument that speaks to your soul and make your own kind of music.
- Paint an enso — paint a circle with a single brush, in one fluid, expressive stroke. The Japanese enso represents strength and elegance, the universe in perfect imperfection.
- Free writing — release your thoughts and emotions as they come to you, no need for accurate spelling, punctuation or grammar — just write, free of self-judgment and self-criticism. Free writing can clear your mind, break through creativity blocks, and may even lead to new insights.
Tip #6: Connect with your five senses.
Taking a few tips from my friend and colleague, Sue Badeau, put together a “go bag” filled with sensory items that sooth your spirit. Some ideas to engage all five senses:
- A soothing scent such as an essential oil like lavender or vanilla;
- Hold a “worry stone,” which is a polished, smooth gemstone and rub it between your fingers to decrease anxiety and stress;
- Save a sound clip stored on your phone — waves on the ocean, your favorite music, the sound of children laughing — something that makes you feel peaceful or makes you smile;
- Keep a zip lock bag of chocolate nibs, peppermints or ginger to snack on — this is a two for one (smell and taste);
- Clip a picture of your fantasy (or real) favorite place on earth — keep it in your wallet or saved as the background on your phone or computer. “Go” there whenever the urge to escape hits.
TIP #7: Put on those rose-colored glasses.
Even though life can be a struggle at times, there is always a glimmer of good, a silver lining, a rosy day ahead. Consider some of these suggestions.
- Focus on the positive to keep yourself afloat.
- Don’t go it alone, connect with friends.
- Pamper yourself with a little alone time — a good book, a warm bath, maybe even a night away to regenerate.
- Decorate your space with daily affirmations. These are reminders that you are valued, you are grateful, you can’t control anything but yourself, you forgive yourself and others — or anything else you need to remind yourself that today is a gift.
- Stop and smell the roses — fill your home with fresh flowers that you planted (gardening can be creative and grounded) or purchased.
Pack your toolbox with a variety of strategies. Be thoughtful and considerate of yourself. Be gentle, kind and caring as you would with others. It is the best gift you can give yourself and your children. a
Lisa Maynard, LMSW, ACSW, TCTSY-F, is a licensed social worker with expertise in trauma, attachment and adoption. Maynard is an implementation specialist with the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.) for the National Adoption Mental Health Competency Initiative (NTI) currently piloting in nine sites across the U.S. She is also a senior consultant with the National Center on Adoption and Permanency (NCAP). Maynard earned a masters of social work from State University of New York, Buffalo. She has a Trauma Counseling Certification from State University of New York, Buffalo, post-graduate certificate in adoption therapy from Hunter College of Social Work, certificate in traumatic stress studies through the Justice Resource Institute from Cambridge, Mass., and is a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt. Maynard is one of fewer than 100 in the world to hold a certificate in Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga.
Maynard has received the following honors: 2010 North American Council on Adoptable Children “Adoption Activist Award;” 2008 United States Department of Health and Human Services Excellence in Adoption Award for post-adoption services; 2001 Congressional Honor “Angel in Adoption.” In 2008, she co-produced an eight-part TV news series on the issues of adoption aired by WROC TV8 Rochester, N.Y., that received national attention winning the Children’s Bureau’s 2008 Anna Quindlen Award and was also nominated for an Emmy award. Maynard maintains a private therapy practice in Upstate New York, integrating yoga philosophy, meditation and mindfulness in her work with clients, guiding them to explore life challenges in a safe, supportive environment.