Sandi Lerman on School and Developmental Trauma in Neurodivergent Kids
Over the past few years I’ve seen the word trauma become more and more prevalent in conversations surrounding children, especially differently wired children. So I invited trauma and education expert Sandi Lerman onto the show so we could talk about exactly what’s going on with our kids — have they or are they experiencing trauma at school? What is developmental trauma? What does trauma look like in our children? And how can we respond to and support a child who has experienced trauma at school or beyond?
I’ve been in conversation with Sandi before in her parent community, and so I knew this was going to be a rich conversation. In this episode, Sandi explains why two different children might internalize the same experience differently, how children’s bodies hold onto trauma, and the relationship between PDA and trauma. Sandi also walks us through the key tenets of her trust-based, connected parenting method in her Heart Strong system.
If your family is going through a difficult time as the result of your child’s relationship with trauma and it seems like nothing makes or will make a difference, this conversation is full of information AND a big message of hope.
About Sandi Lerman
Sandi Lerman, MA Ed. is the Founder and Program Director of Heart-Strong International, a global education company that provides training and coaching programs for parents and teachers of children with developmental trauma and professional graduate-level programs for Trauma-Informed Specialists, Certified Parent Coaches, and Certified Educational Trainers.
Sandi is an educator with over twenty years of classroom teaching experience in K-12, university, and adult education settings, has worked as a parent coach and educator since 2014, and has coordinated two state-wide government and non-profit parenting and community mental health education programs in Indiana.The creator of the HEART-STRONG Model™, Sandi uses trauma-informed coach training and somatic healing practices in her work with adults and those who parent, teach, and take care of children and teens, along with practical tools and strategies to support their growth and success. Most importantly, Sandi is the proud Mama Bear of Hiro, a young adult adopted at age 10 who has overcome extreme challenges resulting from complex developmental trauma. Sandi is also a former American Sign Language interpreter, speaks Spanish, and has lived and worked as an educator in both Scotland and Mexico.
Things you’ll learn from this episode
- What developmental trauma is
- Whether neurodivergent kids are more likely to experience trauma or have their “little t” traumas impact them in more profound ways
- Why two different children might internalize the same experience differently
- How our kids’ bodies hold onto trauma and how it might be expressed
- How PDA (pathological demand avoidance) is connected to developmental trauma
- Specific modalities that are most helpful to help children who have experienced trauma recover
- What the path toward healing from childhood trauma looks like
Resources mentioned for school & developmental trauma
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD
- Zach Morris Talks About Somatic Therapy for Processing Trauma in Differently Wired Kids (Tilt Parenting Podcast)
- Anya Kamenetz on Her Book The Stolen Year and the Impact of COVID on Children (Tilt Parenting Podcast)
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Debbie Reber 00:00
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Sandi Lerman 00:25
Little things that happen that we don’t see as being traumatizing. A child who’s already a little bit feeling fearful, is going to assign a deeper meaning to that and create their own story from that. And the story is not housed in just the brain. It’s also in the body. So the body is maintaining that nervous system vigilance forever until they get the kind of support and the love and the care and the restorative practices that will help them.
Debbie Reber 00:57
Welcome to Tilt Parenting a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host, Debbie Reber and I have a great episode for you today. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the word trauma become more and more prevalent in conversation surrounding children, especially differently wired children. So I invited trauma and education experts Sandi Lerman onto the show so we could talk about exactly what’s going on with their kids. Have they or are they experiencing trauma at school? What is developmental trauma? What does trauma look like in our children? And how can we respond to and support a child who has experienced trauma. I’ve been in conversation with Sandy before in her parent community, so I knew this was going to be a rich and important conversation. Sandi comes at this through lived experience as the parent of a young adult adopted at age 10, who has overcome extreme challenges resulting from complex developmental trauma. As a result of her experience, Sandi founded Heart Strong International, a global education company that provides training and coaching programs for parents and teachers of children with developmental trauma. She also offers professional graduate level programs for trauma informed specialists, certified parent coaches and certified educational trainers. So in this episode you’re about to listen to Sandi explain why two different kids might internalize the same experience differently, how kids’ bodies hold on to trauma, and the relationship between PDA or pathological demand avoidance and trauma. Sandy also walks us through the key tenants of her trust based connected parenting method in our heart strong system. So if your family is going through a difficult time as a result of your child’s relationship with trauma, and it seems like nothing makes or will make a difference, have a listen. This is one of those conversations that is not only full of information, but a big message of hope. And don’t forget, there’s a new way to engage with me in the podcast this season. Tilt parenting is partnering with the new app called Fable to host a Tilt Parenting Pod Club. It’s like a book club, but for podcasts. So together we go deeper on every single episode and share highlights, comments, questions, related resources and more. And it is completely free to join the Tilt Parenting Pod club and the discussion surrounding my conversation with Sandi Lerman. Just download the fable app on your phone or device and search for Tilt Parenting, or go to tiltparenting.com/fable for a direct link. I hope to see you there. And now here is my conversation with Sandi.
Debbie Reber 03:50
Hey, Sandy, welcome to the podcast.
Sandi Lerman 03:52
Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
Debbie Reber 03:54
I am glad to have you on the show. We’ve been in conversation before with your community. And I’ve been wanting to bring you on to talk about trauma and all the work that you’re doing to support families like ours. But before we get into that, can you introduce yourself in your own way? I always love to hear people’s stories about how they got into doing the work that they’re doing and how it’s tied to their personal why?
Sandi Lerman 04:18
Sure I’d be happy to. So I am a mom first and foremost, I have a son who’s 22 now, I met him when he was six years old and I adopted him when he was 10. It took four years for us to go through that very long, very, really grueling process of international adoption. Before I met him though, I was a teacher. So for many, many years, I was in a lot of education. And I thought you know, I really love kids who are a little bit challenging. I know that kids who are adopted have some trauma and they need a little extra help. I had some adopted kids who were in my classroom, and I thought I’m going to do this. I was a solo parent. I went ahead and adopted my son And, and I quickly found out that I was not very well equipped to parent him because I thought because I understood sign language and he’s deaf. But I didn’t really understand about developmental trauma. So long story short, my journey starts with that adoption and meeting my son hero, learning more about developmental trauma. And then kind of merging that with my understanding of child development, and creating this business, which is for parent coaches and trainers and families who are struggling with children who have developmental trauma.
Debbie Reber 05:32
Can you talk a little bit more about your work that you do for the business that you started? And how you support families and work with people?
Sandi Lerman 05:39
Yes, yeah. So we started out as a very small parent coaching company. So as I said, I really figured out that I wasn’t very well equipped. So I went to all the classes, read all the books, including your book, read many, many experts in the field of trauma and child development. But what I was finding was that for my son, and for others, like him, some of these methods were just not working, even though they were connected, and helping kids with regulation, those kinds of things. I was frustrated, because I would see him going back and forth, and back and forth, and just not really being able to build that resilience and build that trust that was needed. So I started out working with other families, doing parent coaching, using the methods that I was using to find success in building that resilience and building that regulation with him. And so now we have grown to include educators as well. So we do some parent coaching and some training of educators, teachers who work in classrooms with children like mine. And then we also now provide parent coach training, and training for educational trainers, those who work in schools who want to train other teachers, and other educators who want to create their own consulting or coaching business.
Debbie Reber 06:58
So needed, and I love talking with people who have created what they needed in their own world, and then are using that to support other people and get the word out there. So I love that. So you use this term developmental trauma. And I would love it if you could define what that is, what is developmental trauma, trauma is a word that I feel is being used a lot in many different scenarios and environments. And I don’t know if there’s even a shared understanding of what that is. But let’s start with developmental trauma.
Sandi Lerman 07:28
Yes, so there are a lot of different kinds of trauma. As you mentioned, a lot of times when people think of trauma, they immediately think of medical trauma or post traumatic stress disorder, veterans who have what we call Big T trauma, people who’ve been through a one time sort of event that was very traumatic, a child who has experienced ongoing trauma, who usually in the context of relationship, whether that’s with a biological family, or with an adoptive family, or a foster family, doesn’t really matter. It’s that relationship dysfunction, attachment challenges, feeling unsafe, feeling not like you have somebody who’s taking care of you having lots of issues at home. And sometimes there are big T traumas involved in that, whether they’re there’s abuse or neglect those kinds of things, but that, that wires the brain differently, right. So this is what we have in common. Some of them may have other disabilities or differences. But being in sort of a toxic soup of challenge to the felt sense of felt safety, creates a brain that is wired for threat. And that is wired for hyper vigilance. So a lot of our children who were adopted, or even when we can talk about this with neuro divergence, kids who are different in any way, go through this sense of not feeling safe in the world many times because the world isn’t set up to meet their needs, the way they need it done. You know, it’s overwhelming. Some people define trauma as too much too fast too soon, right? Trauma is not just what happened to you. It’s also, that’s the famous phrase from Bruce Perry. He says, It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you. But it’s what happened to you. And how did you interpret that? What meaning did you make from that? How do you feel about yourself as a human being in the world who’s there for you, right? And then who was there for you? Or who is there for you now, to create a sense of relational safety. So we really want to look at relationships, attachment, feelings of safety, feelings of being able to be who they are in the world. When that’s not there. The brain is wired for threat. And what parents and teachers see is behaviors, right? That’s always the first sign or the symptom of something that’s not quite going well in the child’s brain and sense of safety. But we can talk about my philosophy on how to handle those behaviors. It’s not about their behaviors. It’s about what’s happening in that child’s mind and their heart that’s causing them to feel A sense of threat, sense of fear, and overwhelm, and then those behaviors come out. So developmental trauma is usually childhood trauma that has created a whole nervous system that is compromised.
Debbie Reber 10:12
So are these neurodivergent kids more likely to experience trauma or have their little T traumas impact them in more profound ways?
Sandi Lerman 10:23
I believe so. And again, I kind of see it as two sides of the same coin. neurodivergent children, sometimes this happens, developmental trauma can start as early as before birth, it’s the toxicity of their environment that they’re in. And sometimes that’s because mom when she was pregnant was under a great deal of stress for some reason, right. And so her cortisol, and other hormones that are going through her body are affecting that little baby coming into the world already terrified and scared. Sometimes the birth process is difficult. Sometimes once the baby is born, mom is really stressed out if the child isn’t doing what she thinks the child should be doing, maybe there’s a little difference there for whatever reason, child is learning to trust mom, as she’s learning to figure out this little baby as they’re growing into h1, h2, h3, all of those developmental milestones, if they’re any different from what mom’s expecting, that’s going to increase her stress. And so just even in that primary attachment relationship, there’s going to be some stress. If that stress is for too long, or it’s too much, or it’s too overwhelming, that child is going to feel afraid, they’re going to be more fearful in the world. So we want to make sure that moms are getting the support that they need through things like this podcast, are understanding children, understanding neurodiversity, and all of that can protect a child, right? Until school age, once they get to school, there’s so many other things that could be stressful or overwhelming for a child, you know, and so out in the real world, it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be tough for kids or have any kind of difference. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t be successful, it doesn’t mean that they can’t build a healthy nervous system, it just means that we’re going to have to add more scaffolding and add more support to make sure that they feel really safe. And they feel really understood. Yeah, and
Debbie Reber 12:15
I’d love to know, how prevalent is this in kids? I mean, certainly in my community, I would venture to say that a majority of parents feel that their children have experienced trauma, or have some kind of PTSD from a school or other experience. So how prevalent is this?
Sandi Lerman 12:34
I agree with that. I think that when we look at statistics for diagnoses, that’s not going to be the same as our lived experience, right? So we don’t want to necessarily just look at the statistics. But the statistics do say that, you know, this was pre-pandemic, the statistic was that one out of every six children had experienced some form of trauma before the age of 16. And that’s a lot of kids. And now that we’ve had the pandemic, and we’ve had other stressors, economic stressors, you know, there’s all different kinds of stress that families are experiencing right now. That adds to the load, right? And so no two children are alike. For some children, the meaning that they make from that stress might not create that traumatic response that fight flight or freeze response. And it might even be two different children in the same family. Right. So we just don’t always know, some children are a little bit more sensitive to stress, right? We have highly sensitive children, we have kids who have sensory issues, there are lots of lots of reasons why a child might be more susceptible to that. But I really do agree with you, I believe that all of our children have the potential to be developing this fight, flight or freeze type of responses because of the overwhelm, and the sense of lack of safety.
Debbie Reber 13:52
Yeah, and I just want to mention Anya Kamenetz’s book, The Stolen Year, I had her on the podcast last fall listeners, if you want to listen to that episode, I’ll put a link in the show notes. But we talked a lot about the ACES and the adverse childhood experiences and that a lot of kids experienced because of things like food scarcity, and just trauma that they experienced as a result of the pandemic.
Sandi Lerman 14:17
Right. And of course, before the pandemic, there was a lot of stress. You know, we don’t want to just blame it on that. I mean, some of our kids are, there are all of the isms that are out there. There are social, economic, political, you name it, there are stresses put upon families and children for so many reasons. And certainly food scarcity and a child who has like mine who grew up in an orphanage who grew up with so many so much lack of nurture and availability of resources, availability of medical care, that’s another thing he almost died at one point and they didn’t take him to a hospital when he was two years old, and he ended up with with hearing loss and and now profoundly deaf, they didn’t have the resources to take him to the hospital. Right? So there are children and and here in the US and in Canada as well, right that have that issue. So there’s so many reasons why a child could be experiencing this and be exhibiting behavior. And I think we often jump to Oh, it’s a behavior disorder, there is a problem with this child, this child has a learning disability, there might be that, or there might not be that it might just be a nervous system response to overwhelm, because of their trauma, or it could be both, right. So we don’t want to. Sometimes I think we spend too much time trying to label the cause when we really can be responding in compassionate ways that are going to be effective, regardless of what the official diagnosis is.
Debbie Reber 15:46
Yeah, absolutely. I want to touch base on school before we kind of move on more deeply. So again, a lot of parents believe that their kids have been traumatized by what happened at school, I probably wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago, you know, I would have said, this has been a tricky environment, or my child has experienced being shamed and things like that. But the word trauma was not something I would have used. I feel like people are using that more freely, or maybe just saying, This is what I believe is going on. I’m wondering, in terms of our kids at school, could you just explain if something big has to happen? Or can these recurring microaggressions like a child being repeatedly ostracized or shamed? Can that equate trauma? And is that how you would see it if kids have experienced that?
Sandi Lerman 16:35
Absolutely. And I think it goes back to the idea of this developmental trauma, especially for children, because their brains are growing at such a rapid pace, especially in that first year. It’s incredible what’s happening to the brain. But even after that up to age 25, their brains are still developing, they’re still making meaning out of what they’re taking in. So that meaning making is shaping their beliefs about who they are, and whether the world is safe or not. And this affects a lot of things, right? It affects the way they’re going to respond. When you ask a child to do something, if they’re afraid that you’re controlling them, they’re going to have a knee jerk response and say, No, you weren’t traumatizing them by asking them that it was just a simple request. But that demand avoidance comes from that stress, and that anxiety and that overwhelm and that hypervigilance of threat, if somebody’s going to tell me what to do, I might lose control, that’s not safe. If it’s not safe, I could die, right? And the nervous system is trying to protect them from that sense of threat. There’s no real threat there. We don’t assign any meaning of threat to that. But a child’s nervous system, if they’re assigning threat to everything, then they’re very over reactive. And that’s why we see those behaviors. But yes, absolutely little things that happen that we don’t see as being traumatizing. A child who’s already a little bit feeling fearful, is going to assign a deeper meaning to that and create their own story from that. And the story is not housed in just the brain, it’s also in the body. So the body is maintaining that nervous system vigilance forever, until they get the kind of support and the love and the care and the restorative practices that will help them.
Debbie Reber 18:23
You’ve talked about making meaning. You’ve mentioned that phrase several times. And I’m interpreting it one way, just how we make sense of what happens or the story we tell ourselves. But how does the child go about doing that? And are some kids inherently more resilient at making meaning I guess, I’m trying to understand what makes the difference between how a child internalizes an experience?
Sandi Lerman 18:47
That depends on the attachment experience that they’ve had, as an infant, really, a lot of that is going to make a big difference. It’s also going to depend on what kind of ACEs they’ve experienced at an early age, right? So if they’ve had a lot of adversity, and we’ve talked about how that could be environmental, that could be community adversity, that could be relationship adversity, if the parent is very stressed out, the parent might not be as warm and caring. Some parents aren’t as responsive to a baby crying, the baby’s laying there, they’re crying, nobody’s responding, then they’re internalizing that in their bodies, maybe not consciously, but their body is beginning to sort of give up on the idea that anybody is going to come help me when I’m in distress. Right? So all of those neurons are firing together and wiring together and creating a brain body story about whether the world is safe or not. Right. And so that story, that’s why we call it development because it’s developing as the brain is developing. There’s a beautiful game, some of you who are in the field that are listening may know about this game. It’s called the brain architecture game. And the idea of this game and I’ve used it in parents So I’ve used it to train staff that were babies are building their brains. And if an adverse experience happens, that’s going to yank out a piece of that architecture. And it’s going to make that brain weaker and less able to build the architecture that it needs to be resilient. So if a child is in school, and they’re 567 years old, and they’ve already had a compromised nervous system, they’re going to be more likely to have that story in their body of threat. Right? If that continues throughout school, by the time you have a middle schooler, or high school kid, but it’s very, very much what they how they see the world works, you know, they’re, they’re pushing back, and they’ve already either given up, or they’re just very reactive. And it’s the longer you wait to give them those protective factors and give them that supportive relationship and help them learn to regulate, and co-regulation. That’s that attachment piece, we need to provide experiences of safety within relationships that are loving and caring with trusted adults.
Debbie Reber 21:05
You talked about the body and you talked about the brain body connection, what does that actually mean, when it comes to our kids? How are kids’ bodies holding on to trauma or having that be a part of their very fiber?
Sandi Lerman 21:18
Yeah, well, I’ll give you an example of this. So I mentioned my son when he was adopted has extreme, early childhood trauma. And adoption itself is also traumatic. I just want to mention that that’s a source of trauma for children, foster care, and adoption can be very traumatic. You’re taking someone away from everything they know. And so him being in my family, this is a new family, this is a new country and culture. Transracial adoption brings its own kind of racial trauma as well. So there’s lots of layers to this. But because of all of the trauma he’s experienced in his young life, he tends to his like, his heart rate will shoot up like that in a moment whenever he gets a sense of threat. And he could look very calm, and not look like he’s upset. But I’ve learned to kind of read the signs like looking at his facial expression, he will start to sweat, he will start to like his hands turn red, his body has a literal physical reaction to any sense of threat or danger in the environment. And most of it is related to how people are communicating with him. If he senses that a doctor, or a provider or an educator or someone doesn’t like him, or gives them a funny look, or doesn’t understand him for whatever reason, he will immediately go into that sort of fight flight or freeze and that protective mode, and we have a high heart rate, we have the sweating we have…it’s like if you’re running a marathon, you can’t really have a conversation with someone. And that’s kind of what his body’s doing. He’s running a little marathon of trying to run away from the tiger that he feels is threatening him. That’s not really there. But it’s in the story that’s in his body.
Debbie Reber 23:01
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Debbie Reber 23:44
I also just wanted to touch upon PDA pathological demand avoidance or as many people now like to call it persistent demand for autonomy. You mentioned this demand avoidance or this very extreme reaction to demands being placed on someone that could be very well connected to developmental trauma. Could you talk a little bit about that? Because I know there are a lot of listeners here who have demand avoidance and kids.
Sandi Lerman 24:09
Yes, well, there are two ways of looking at demand avoidance, of course, PDA is typically associated as a type of autism, right? It’s part of the Autistic community, there are people who identify as someone who is a PDA person, and that’s kind of part of their identity. And so I want to acknowledge that and I don’t want to discount that experience. I think because PDA is often connected to the stress response. And we’re seeing demand avoidance kinds of behaviors and any child who has anxiety, they’re going to be more likely to be avoidant of anybody controlling them, or forcing them into something or even making the suggestion that they might be forcing them into something or even just giving them a look because they put something on the wrong encounter or left some a sock on the floor or whatever. Like you just took a look at that and they’ll scream at you. I was gonna do it I was gonna you know. And so these little what we would term overreactions are body reactions, right? It’s this fight flight or freeze reaction of, oh, no, they’re going to tell me what to do. This is threatening to my sense of autonomy, right? That persistent demand for autonomy. I can’t handle that. It’s too much. It’s too fast. It’s too soon. And so in trauma world that I work in, I’m constantly helping parents learn how to navigate that kind of reactivity, which it has a reason it’s there’s a stress related reason, there’s a body related reason, there’s a trauma related reason, it’s not that this child is just trying to push your buttons and trying to make your life miserable. I often joke and say, you know, they didn’t sit down this morning and create a plan. You know, like the football players have their little map of all their plays for the day. They’re not that sophisticated, that they’re really planning ahead, cognitively of how they’re going to make your life difficult. What’s happening is they’re having a brain body reaction, because of stress, they’re going into flight, fight or freeze, the heart rate is going up. They’re sweating, their palms are red. And they’re saying no. And what they’re saying no to is no, don’t scare me, no, don’t force me Don’t push me. They’re not saying no, I’m not going to be cooperative with you and help you out with the question you’re asking. It’s in how you ask, and the timing sometimes. And there’s lots of ways that you can invite a child to do something without making them feel forced or coerced. And then over time, the model that we use is, I call it the spiraling stages of growth. Over time, you’re going to see growth and healing, and much less reactive behavior, because you’ve created a relationship of safety and autonomy, right? You want to help build autonomy. Build those strengths so the child doesn’t feel like they’re constantly in this tug of war between the parent and the child, I tell parents to drop the rope. But you don’t need to be in a tug of war with a child, drop the rope, go to the other side of the rope, and be on their team approach all challenges as a team rather than as a, I told you to do it, and you need to do it immediately. Right, that doesn’t help the nervous system, you’re just creating more stress, and more likelihood of having those kinds of reactions.
Debbie Reber 27:15
And I just want to add, because we talk about this piece quite a bit on the show, that I recognize that there are people who feel that that’s endorsing certain things, or that it’s too accommodating to a child. And it’s not teaching them resilience and things like that. But just to remind people that there’s really no development that can happen if a child is in fight flight or freeze mode, like there’s no learning or growth. And so getting our kids back to a sense of safety is where we have to start in order for anything to happen.
Sandi Lerman 27:50
Yeah, and I really appreciated that you said that, because that was, I think probably my main frustration in the beginning of all of this, when my son was extremely reactive. I mean, we’re talking 911 level, if some of the families listening might be in the situation where you’ve got a child who’s dangerous to live with, we had massive, and then he’s given me permission to share all this. So I just want to let everybody know that but really massive rages that were destructive to our home, that were I felt that my life or my safety was threatened, his safety was threatened, the dog’s safety was threatened. We call them unwanted, we had police in our home. So it was very extreme. I would go to family therapy, I would go to all these workshops that they say, you know, just let them help them feel safe. Like you don’t understand, I don’t even feel safe here. This is so extreme. We’ve got to get him to the next level where he’s not doing this anymore. We’ve got to get rid of these really extreme behaviors somehow, right? So I understand where parents are coming from when they’re saying, Well, if we just let them get away with that, what’s that going to do? That’s why the way that I’ve structured the model is that we look where they are in their development, where they are in their trauma journey. I call it the spiraling stages of growth and healing. And we look at these various stages. And then we address whatever the behavior is, depending on where they are in that stage of learning to co-regulate, learning to be in relationship, feeling that they trust you in a relationship. Having reciprocity, we use a lot of Ross Greene data hooks, behavior techniques to look at what’s going on beneath the surface of the behavior and having collaborative conversations, all of that, and then eventually to build that resilience. The resilience can’t come and the behaviors can’t improve. Until you have a child who feels safe and regulated, a body’s regulated, they’re in a really trusting relationship. And the great news is that once that happens, you’re going to see more and more of the child having autonomy. That is the kind of behavior that the parent feels safer with themselves and they feel If they’re seeing progress, they feel more that the child is more cooperative. And there’s more happiness and joy in the family. And you’re not always in conflict or fear.
Debbie Reber 30:08
That sounds very hopeful for you to say that we want to get to a place where kids feel safe, and they are regulated. So you are saying that what I take from that is that that’s possible. And my hunch is that there are listeners who are like, that is not possible in my family. So where would you encourage parents to even start to embrace this idea and to start this journey for themselves?
Sandi Lerman 30:30
Thank you for saying that. Yes, there is so much hope for our families, and not just my family, but many of the families that I’ve worked with, it seems that somehow, and I didn’t set out to become an expert in highly explosive and aggressive children, that was never a dream of mine. Right? When I adopted or when I started doing bear coaching, this was a, I think I’m going to help really consider having to call someone to come help you because they’re attacking you, these things never crossed my mind when I went into adoption. But I realized that, okay, this is something I know how to handle now. Because I’ve really embraced this idea of starting with compassion for yourself. And for the child in front of you, no matter what is happening in the moment, there’s a lot of mindfulness, a lot of there’s a lot of inner work that has to happen for the parent to be able to calm their own nervous system, to the point where they can really support a child who has a compromised nervous system. And I like to remind parents too, your child might look like they’re fine. You know, you just look at them. Oh, this is a 12 year old. But deep inside that child, there’s a one year old baby screaming for attention, screaming for help, terrified of whatever the thing is that they’re terrified of. And that nervous system is compromised, just like if you had a child with a severe disability, who needed to use a wheelchair who needed to be on a ventilator needed to be, you know, you would not expect them to do all of the things that you’re expecting this child with a compromised nervous system to be able to do, we have to heal that nervous system first, to a certain level, right? It’s not going to be perfect, it’s never going to be perfect. You know, even adults have good and bad days with our own nervous systems, right? We have days where we snap or we are more stressed out and we can’t handle as much. So that child if we know they have a compromised nervous system. And we’ve already said the majority of the children that we’re talking about on this podcast are in that situation where they’re going into a stress response, because the world is too fast too soon, too early, too much. Right? So if we know that, then we need to reduce our expectations for now. Not forever. Okay. And so, you know, Ross screens, famous quote about it’s not that they, you know, it’s not that they won’t do something, it’s that they can’t do it. And I like to add the word yet. And yet is the hopeful word. Because just because today your child can’t, you know, respond to a demand without having a massive explosive episode. Does it mean that next year, two years from now, three years from now, that might go completely away. And I can tell you from my life experience, that’s exactly what has happened. My son does not react to those things like that at all anymore, compared to what he was like when I first adopted him.
Debbie Reber 33:23
Thanks for the reminder of the word YET. That’s something my therapist reminded me of last night, in fact, and it is a very powerful word. A good one to have in our back pocket. You mentioned helping our kids heal their own nervous systems, and heal from their trauma. We’ve done episodes on somatic therapy. We haven’t done one on EMDR, specifically, but I’m wondering, do you have specific modalities that you feel are most helpful for kids who have experienced trauma to recover from that?
Sandi Lerman 33:54
Yes, I I love all of those somatic modalities. I love EMDR I love anything somatic experiencing anything that’s a little bit non traditional, I’m not sure cognitive behavioral therapy is always effective, because that’s, that’s somebody who has a pretty solid executive function who’s able to talk through things right and kind of see cause and effect and all of that. A lot of our kids, it’s really just their body reacting. It’s not like, it’s not like they’re doing it on purpose, right? It’s my son. This is really typical, he would go to a therapy session, and he was perfect in therapy. And he was perfect in group therapy. He had a case manager who had taught him coping skills, so to hear all the coping skills, let’s put a picture of them on the wall. And these are all the things you’re going to do when you’re feeling stressed. And you’d say yes, and he draw them and you know, and then when he’s having an episode when he goes into fight, flight or freeze, he’s not able to access any of that. My strong belief is that all of those sorts of cognitive types of therapies are wonderful for but only into situations when the child is older. left to really want to talk about their trauma. And when they’re cooperative, and they’re going, and then they feel like it’s benefiting them. So I think the person who’s therapy is the parent, because they need to regulate their own nervous system first. As far as what helps the child heal, I think any of those somatic kinds of things for my son, he goes through art therapy. He’s a phenomenal artist and art is the way he expresses himself most clearly. And it’s his love language is art and creating worlds of his own design. And so he uses art to reduce his stress, but also to express his, his deep, most inner feelings, right. And so I think art therapy, animal therapy, all of those things can be really effective. But the number one thing that is the most effective is healing within a trusted relationship, developing a relationship of trust and cooperation and collaboration, and not forcing the child and helping them feel that they are safe, loved, and accepted for exactly who they are, exactly where they are on that spiral that I mentioned before. If you’re in crisis, the first stage in crisis, the only thing you can do is respond with compassion, there’s not going to be any growth right now. We’re not working on growth and healing, we are working on being compassionate first for ourselves. And then for the child, once they have moved out of crisis, once they feel safe enough, that they’re not destroying your home attacking people who are hurting themselves, whenever the crisis is right, kids are hospitalized, things happen, their systems can cause a lot of damage to a lot of things. So once we move out of crisis, and they feel safe, then we’re gonna start having conversations, we’re going to start building that resilience, we’re going to start really collaboratively and gently giving them experiences of safety where they can feel success in trying something new emotionally, or academically or whatever it happens to be. That’s the challenge, right? And then we just baby step that and we scaffold, and then they grow a little bit more, and we scaffold and they grow a little bit more. And then eventually, you take those scaffoldings off, or you take those training wheels off. And they don’t always have to co regulate with you, they can start to self regulate more and more. But we start with CO regulation, you are going to be the executive function and the nervous system for the entire family for a little while, right, your calm nervous system, there’s a thing called mirror neurons, you’re going to be contagious to your child, just like your child’s nervous system is contagious to you. Studies show that when we are in a heightened state of fight, flight or freeze, other people around us are gonna feel that too. But when you calm down yourself, the child will eventually come with you. Over time, with a lot of modeling, a lot of practice and a lot of reassurance, the child will learn their own coping strategies, and here uses his art. He uses pets. I’m trying to think what else he uses there for lots of different things that we do. I do things like that, I see that he’s really upset. If he’ll allow me to give him a hug. Sometimes a warm, affirm hug is helpful. I don’t believe in restraining kids when they’re having explosive. So that’s a whole other training that I do, I call it, how to tame the trauma dragon. But it’s really not about forcing or coercing it’s about creating safety, helping the body. So I do a thing where I will rub the palms of his hand, sometimes he’ll ask me to massage his scalp, things that bring the body to a state of calm, and that gives you the happy hormones that are going to help calm that nervous system. But he won’t be able to allow me to do that if he doesn’t trust me. So we had to spend a long time developing that trust and developing that relationship first.
Debbie Reber 38:51
Such important advice and thoughts. And I can imagine there are lots of people listening who want to know how to get better at this. Can you talk about the way that listeners might be able to engage through the work that you do to get that kind of support?
Sandi Lerman 39:07
Yes, absolutely. So we at Heart Strong International, we provide parent coaching. We also have certified parent coaches. So we have a lot of coaches that are really all over the world. Most are in the US and Canada. We do have a coach that’s in New Zealand. We have another coach from Australia, who’s gonna be joining us soon. I think we have one in Great Britain that’s thinking about joining us to so we’re really trying to equip folks in different parts of the country in different communities. We have an organization, we’re working with Latina acts of organization, and we’re going to be training some of their parent educators as well. We really want to get this work into the hands of as many people as we can, because I can’t parent coach everybody, right? There’s so many families that need this information. So if you contact us at Heart Strong, you can hop on a zoom with me or I can refer you to one of the coaches that might be a good fit for you to get some more information about that. But you can also go to my blog, read some of the articles there and kind of see what’s going on there. I have a couple of YouTube training sessions and things you can check out as well.
Debbie Reber 40:13
Yeah, I just want to say, I’m so glad that you did this work. And for listeners who are experiencing this, I know, this is really hard stuff. If you have a child who has experienced trauma or multiple traumas, who may be expressing that trauma in ways that feels scary and big, it can be incredibly overwhelming. And Sandy, I feel like everything you share and the energy you bring to this experience, the love and passion that you have for this, it’s so hopeful. And I hope that listeners are feeling that that listeners if they’re in this situation are feeling like we can actually figure this out. There’s hope for my family. Yeah, I just want to thank you for that. You mentioned Heart Strong International, of course, I’ll have a link to that in the show notes pages anywhere else where you’d like listeners to engage with you.
Sandi Lerman 41:02
Yeah, like I said, I’m on YouTube, I have some blog posts and things that they can read. If anyone wants to talk to me about their child, I’d be happy to, you know, just give you some free resources as well, just to get you started. We have cohorts, every four months. We do cohorts where we train people in our heart strong model in that spiraling stages of growth and how to really assess. I call it assessing and then addressing where they are right now. Because we can’t do everything immediately at once. Right? It’s a baby step process. But over time, growth does happen, healing does happen. It just takes a commitment to following a different kind of model that’s not punitive. That’s not coercive, that’s not the sort of, we need to get them to understand authority, all of that kind of the old, punitive old school things. It’s a very gentle approach. But it’s also very effective. And it builds capacity based on a feeling of self efficacy. When children feel that they’re able to be successful, then they want to be more successful, they want to be in relationship more, if we’re just forcing children and controlling them all the time. They lack that sense of internal motivation and desire to improve. So that’s the kind of all this is it’s, I call it Olympic level parenting. So those of you who are listening who have children who are extremely explosive and aggressive because of trauma, developmental trauma, it takes a parent who’s committed to having a really strong nervous system and is ready to do the work to be that strong anchor for all the storms that are going to come. So that child learns to calm down quicker. We talked about the lift factors, the length, the intensity, the frequency, and the triggers are going to reduce over time. And they’re going to be more and more resilient over time. And I’ve seen every parent that I’ve worked with 100% of them have seen some degree of growth and healing when using this model. So yes, there’s so much hope and I don’t want anybody to give up. Don’t listen to the people that tell you, your child has reactive attachment disorder. That’s just the way they’re going to be through the rest of their lives. I don’t agree with that. Because my son had that diagnosis. He had all the diagnoses, intermittent explosive disorder or PTSD, possible mood disorder, you know, all he had a really long list of psychiatric diagnoses. If he were to be evaluated, now he would not have he still has some anxiety and depression. But he does not have that explosive rage. Destructive what people term reactive attachment disorder, he doesn’t have any of that anymore, because he trusts me and his nervous system is now calm. So there’s so much hope.
Debbie Reber 43:46
Thank you. That’s so good to hear. I so appreciate, again, the work that you’re doing, that you turned your life experience into such a generous offering for so many people. So thank you. Thanks for everything you shared today. It was really lovely to chat with you.
Sandi Lerman 43:59
And thank you for the work that you do. It’s wonderful.
Debbie Reber 44:05
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