Top Ten Tuesday is a book meme hosted by The Broke and Bookish. Today’s topic represents a bit of a challenge for me, because developing new syllabi is part of my job. I teach Children’s Lit, Adolescent Lit, Contemporary Lit, British Lit, Graphic Novels, Composition, as well as a host of other courses. When I get the urge to teach something new, I can often make that happen. For this list, I tried to think of ideas for syllabi that wouldn’t overlap with a course I already have—or a course I might someday cook up. So here’s an idea for a course that’s desperately needed but not something I’d ever be teaching in my job: nine books and one video I’d teach in a course on Therapeutic Parenting.
Coming to Grips with Attachment is the first book that explained my feelings to myself. I was an unhappy mother for the first year of parenting, and I couldn’t figure out why. Hadn’t I wanted this? Hadn’t I believed I loved this child when I was only looking at photos of him? Why didn’t I feel like his mother once I actually was his mother? What was wrong with me? Katherine Leslie had the answer: reciprocity. I thought my behavior was what made me feel like a mother. It turns out, it’s our children’s and our behavior that makes us feel like mothers. Leslie has a list of 75 reciprocal behaviors that attached children engage in to show their connections to their parents. These are simple things that parents take for granted: your child looks up when you walk into the room, for example. My child did almost none of those 75 reciprocal behaviors. No wonder I didn’t feel like his mother! Leslie has another brilliant idea too: emotion coaching. She believes that we have to teach traumatized children how to engage in a reciprocal relationship with us. And so that’s what we did. And now, four years in, my son engages in all 75 reciprocal behaviors and I am most definitely his mother.
Creating Loving Attachments is the book that saved us. In it, I was introduced to the PACE technique, which is valuable for all parents and teachers. PACE stands for playful, accepting, curious, and empathetic, and the technique asks you to use only words that are PACE when you interact with traumatized children. It’s a lot harder than you think! Much of what we think is empathetic or accepting is actually reassuring (i.e., dismissing). Much of what we think is curious is actually nagging. PACE is a marvelous technique for disarming the defenses of the traumatized child who finds every aspect of his world threatening—including words and language. Creating Loving Attachments is full of scenarios and scripts so that parents can see how to respond with PACE in many different situations. I copied lines on index cards and committed them to memory.
Beyond Logic, Consequences, and Control is the first book about therapeutic parenting that I read. I read it on the plane ride home from Ethiopia. If I had only done the things Heather Forbes suggests, if I had only been open to what she has to say, everything would have gone a whole lot more smoothly from the start and I would have a whole lot less to apologize for now. I was not open to the message of this book at that time. In fact, I wanted to fling the book across the plane—only it was on my Kindle, so that would have been silly. The message is simple: all of our children’s challenging behaviors are caused by intense fear. The only way to resolve the behaviors is to address the fear. And the best way to address the fear is usually to change ourselves first. When our children act out, it’s because we aren’t making them feel safe and we need to do a better job. I was so offended by this at the time: how could I be to blame for all of this child’s difficulties? Why couldn’t he just learn to listen and obey? But I will say right now in public on my blog: Heather, you were right about everything, and I was wrong. This is now the first book I send struggling parents to, and it’s one that I can return to again and again and always find advice that’s right for this moment.
Reparenting the Child Who Hurts uses the metaphor of a three-story house to explain what’s going on in the brains of traumatized children. This was my first introduction to neuroscience, even if it is more neuroscience-for-dummies. I’m not sure that anything has helped me be a better parent more than an understanding of what is going on in my son’s brain. After an extensive brain science section, the book tackles different typical behavior problems and provides scripts and suggestions to try for each one. More index cards and memorization of scripts!
The Body Keeps the Score is a summary of trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk’s life work, written for a general audience. Van Der Kolk works with people who have experienced all kinds of trauma, from war veterans to victims of sexual abuse to accident victims. He shares insights from his work, summarizes all kinds of fascinating scientific experiments and studies, and is especially good on the neuroscience and physiology of trauma. Not all of the book is relevant to working with traumatized children, but all of it is interesting.
Facilitating Developmental Attachment is a book written for therapists, and it’s not an easy or quick read, but it’s one I’ve reread a dozen times. Hughes describes his techniques for working with adopted children on their attachment issues. He includes many case studies and transcripts from counseling sessions. Reading this book was like receiving training from Hughes himself in therapeutic techniques. Many children from hard places aren’t willing or able to work effectively with therapists, and so parents have to step into that role to some degree.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog is a fascinating collection of case studies written by one of the foremost trauma specialists in the world, Bruce Perry. It’s written for a general audience, and it’s quite a page-turner though it’s not an easy read. But even though the stories are hard to read, they’re generally life-affirming simply because Perry finds ways to work with these children and they find ways to heal to various degrees. I think there is only one hopeless case, and even that one is instructive.
Raising Children Who Refuse to Be Raised is one I read and reread in my first months as an aspiring therapeutic parent. Ziegler works with very tough kids, and his case studies are fascinating. I began to understand my son’s feelings so much better, but what was most valuable to me was Ziegler’s sense of humor. Parenting trauma is really, really not funny. And yet, it’s also hysterical. If you can’t laugh, what can you really do? Ziegler always finds the humor in his work. Over and over, he reminds parents and therapists to lighten up and laugh, even while acknowledging the horrible grind and feelings of hopelessness that parenting traumatized children often bring. Probably it was learning to laugh about our situation that finally started us on the path to healing, and I credit Ziegler with showing me the way.
Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions is not a book specifically for parenting traumatized children, but since traumatized children most definitely have intense emotions, there are many effective strategies I’ve learned from this book. There are a few mantras that I like—he’s doing the best that he can, he would do better if he could. And there are specific strategies for validating the child’s emotions (again, our default mode as adults is to reassure children about their emotional distress, a natural and understandable response, but the effect of reassurance is to dismiss the child’s feelings and experience of the world) and teaching more effective coping strategies.
Chaos to Healing is a videotaped conversation between therapeutic parent and parenting coach Christine Moers and psychologist Billy Kaplan. The two of them have a wonderful rapport and energy, so it’s calming just to watch them interact. They explain the PACE technique and share specific strategies for therapeutic parenting. There’s nothing intuitive about therapeutic parenting at first, so it takes a lot of practice and a lot of hearing and reading the same material over and over again to get it.