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Using Non-Verbal Skills to Help our Children Cope

I recently did a talk about the impact or tone and non-verbal language for my foster families.  I used an article called “How We React And Carry Ourselves Matters!” by Jeane Preisler.  The article is great, and I recommend a read if you have an extra moment.  I definitely went off topic from her main point, but it follows her points to some extent.  I pulled three main topics.

11.)    Our non-verbal language is a key to how trustworthy our children believe we are.  Think about two scenarios. 

In the first scenario a toddler falls on the ground and before crying looks to you to see how you react.  In this situation if you indicate calm the child knows that they are ok and will normally stay calm themselves.  If that same child sees you panic they will cry.  They look to us for indicators to how they should respond.  They do this intuitively, and it is not a one for one.  They are not looking to see if you are crying, they are looking to see what you think, and they decide how to react based on how they read you.  This is important to acknowledge, while they have no training in body language and little experience, they can tell what you are thinking to some extent. 

In the second scenario a child has been pulled from their home and their social worker is taking them to a new home.  They are scared and anxious as they approach the home of their new foster family.  The family opens the door and welcomes the child.  The father and mother both have huge smiles and they warmly say “we are so happy you are here”.  In this situation you may think the child is getting safety message and it should work like the first scenario, but it often has the opposite effect.  This situation can result in the child not trusting the adults.

What is the difference?  Well, it has a lot to do with empathy.  Part of what makes a person trustworthy is their ability to empathize with others.  In the first scenario the child is looking to the adults to see how they should react, but in the second scenario the child is already scared and anxious.  They already know this is a terrible thing, but the adults who are supposed to care for them are so clueless to their plight that they don’t even know this is a bad day, not a good one.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the parents should open the door and be sad, but they should demonstrate with their body language that they understand that this is a bad day for the child.  They should show more empathy and less excitement.  They still want to be welcoming and warm, just not happy about the bad day the child is having.

This is important any child, not just children coming into foster care.  They need to see that our body language lines up with reality.  They look to us for how to react, but once they have picked a reaction we can’t pretend everything is ok.  We have to meet them where they are.  This is not a “mental health” idea, this is a biblical idea.  Think of the lengths that Christ went to in order to meet us where we are?  He encouraged us to not worry about things (Matthew 6:25-34), but he also showed deep empathy and shed tears with us (John 11:33-35).

22.)    Our deference to the “professionals” is having a negative impact on our children.  Once a therapeutic alliance is formed and a child feels safe talking to a professional, they are often asked why they did not share some of their negative thoughts with the adults they already had in their life.  The number one response is that they feel like the adults already have too much going on and they couldn’t handle it.  Look, I get the desire to avoid these conversations.  You feel vulnerable because there is nothing you can do…but we can’t have our children thinking they are alone in bearing the burden of their traumas.  This does not mean that you need to fix it, just that you need to be present for them.  The article that I referenced earlier suggested that you invite and welcome the difficult conversations, and that during the conversation you focus on communicating that the child is safe, loveable, and capable.  We may not be able to make their pain go away.  We may not even be able to give them ideas on how to fix the problem, but we can stand in solidarity with them.  We can grieve with them.  We can let them know they are not alone.  We can help them to feel safe, let them know we love them, and that we believe they are capable.  Don’t pawn off on a professional that sees them once a week, what you can do every day.  The professionals in Jesus’ day had a lot of solutions, but Christ choose his disciples from among the fisherman and other common folk.  Don’t underestimate what He can do through you.

33.)    Our children have a lot of negative self-talk, and our silence often just confirms it for them.  It does not matter if a child actively says it or not, all children have an awful lot of negative self-talk going on in their heads.  Our online culture has added a whole new level of pressure to fitting in because they no longer have any place to hide that is safe from the eyes of those that approve or do not approve.  It has often been said that we need to say three positives for every negative statement before a child will begin to consider it.  When you consider their hidden self-talk and the brutality of social media…this is an uphill battle.  It is important to recognize this as you are talking to your children, but we are going to have to do better than just pouring our random positivity.  Here are a few tips to make the positivity go further.

a.       Mean what you say – as discussed in our first topic, our kids have amazing BS meters and if you don’t mean it they will not believe it and they will have trouble believing you in the future.  It is better to give a real compliment over something small then a huge compliment that is fake.
b.      Be specific – It is far better to use very specific praise.  “I like the way you got into the corners with the broom” is better than “You are a good sweeper”.
c.       Enlist them in the project – make a routine out of saying positives about each other and about yourselves at the dinner table.  It can make dinner time exciting because you get to hear good things, and it forces them to scan their day for good things, which changes what the brain looks for, and will eventually lead to them seeing the world in a more positive manner.

Christ knew the hearts of the people, but he chose to pour out a message of love and acceptance.  These tips take extra work, but the work of Christ is not easy, and he never promised it would be.

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