A New Approach

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The first time that Kendra heard about foster care was during a church presentation while she was in college. It stirred her soul and she knew it was a calling that the Lord had placed on her life. After discussing it with her fiancé, David, they decided that fostering was something they’d pursue after they had biological children of their own. David and Kendra got married, started a family, and raised their children. However, once their kids moved away to college, they heard again about the need for foster parents and contacted STARRY.

During their STARRY foster care training, they learned about Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI®) which was designed for caregivers to help children from “hard places” heal from the trauma of their pasts. David and Kendra knew that many children in foster care had been abused or neglected, and some had endured more difficult circumstances than they could ever imagine. Through TBRI®, they learned ways to disarm the inherent fear that traumatized children often have, as well as how to connect with each child in a more personal way. David and Kendra learned about the unique needs and challenging behaviors that result from trauma and, while TBRI® sounded interesting, they were confident in their parenting approach, which had proven to be successful with their own children.

Once licensed, David and Kendra received a call about an 8-year-old little girl named Anna, and her 6-year-old brother, Ben, who had been found in filthy living conditions, potentially abused by numerous men who had visited their home to help fund their mother’s crippling and debilitating addiction to drugs and alcohol. David and Kendra welcomed Anna and Ben into their home with fresh-baked cookies and took them shopping the next day to pick out toys and comforters for their beds.

The first couple of weeks went relatively smoothly as Anna and Ben settled in and were not exhibiting any problematic behaviors. David and Kendra decided to continue with their own approach rather than implementing the tools they’d learned in their TBRI® training. For the first month, things went well … but then things began to change.

Being the older sibling, Anna was increasingly taking on the role of a parent to her brother and became resistant to the house rules. The more David and Kendra tried to enforce the rules by taking away privileges, the more defiant Anna became, which resulted in continual power struggles. They noticed an increased number of tantrums from Ben, as most frustrations resulted in a meltdown. When they told him to go to his room to calm down, things would escalate – even to the point of him throwing things and hitting Kendra. David and Kendra knew that when foster children are moved to a new placement, their trauma is compounded, so they did not want to give up on these children. At the same time, the stress was taking its toll and, despite their best parenting efforts, they were beginning to wonder if they could truly meet the children’s needs. Kendra finally told her STARRY case manager what was happening, tearfully saying, “This is not what I had in mind when I decided to foster.” Wanting to try a new approach, David and Kendra agreed to a visit from their Family Engagement Specialist. This is a unique service that STARRY offers to its foster parents, which provides in-home coaching to help parents implement TBRI®.

The Family Engagement Specialist listened to their concerns and reviewed some of the TBRI® principles, which focus on building connection and a sense of felt safety for the kids. They discussed how, even when a child from a hard place is safe, they may not feel safe, which results in fear-based behaviors. David and Kendra identified the traditional, authoritarian parenting approach they were raised with, which focuses on modifying behavior through rewards and punishments. TBRI®, by contrast, focuses on identifying the need behind the behavior and meeting that need through connecting principles such as eye contact and playful engagement. They learned how behaviors could be effectively corrected using playful engagement and re-do’s (a chance to try again and get it right), and how traditional parenting approaches can trigger past traumas, eroding the connection they had worked to build.

Although skeptical at first, David and Kendra prevented power struggles and remedied behaviors with playful correction. They learned how to disarm fear and build connection. They learned how re-do’s put positive behaviors into a child’s motor memory and provide an opportunity for praise, helping a child to feel valued. They set aside their practice of using time-outs, which can trigger feelings of abandonment and rejection, and instead began utilizing time-ins. During these, they would sit with Ben in his calm-down tent to help him self-regulate and change the way he feels when he wants to. Together, they would practice his calm-down methods and playful breathing techniques. Then, they would discuss what he did wrong, how he could do it right, and offer a re-do. What a powerful message this was, to tell him that they were there to help him get it right!

Soon, Anna’s power struggles and Ben’s tantrums lessened in frequency and intensity. David and Kendra consistently called their TBRI®-trained case manager to help sharpen their skills. Although Anna and Ben are still on the road to healing, their family is doing well and David and Kendra have started the adoption process to make the kids part of their forever family!

*Names and specific facts have been changed to provide confidentiality, while still providing insights into TBRI® and the world of foster care.