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The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle Approach to Foster Parenting

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                   Peggy Corra

This week’s Take Five features Peggy Corra, a counselor whose work in child welfare makes her a passionate supporter of people who are called to parent the world’s most broken children. She received an M.A. in Community Counseling from Bradley University, is married to her college sweetheart and they share two grown sons and three grandchildren. Her unique insight into parenting kids from hard places was a game-changer in how I parent my own kids and I so desperately wanted to package her wisdom and share it with anyone in the trenches of the foster or adoptive journey. Here she shares some creative ideas for the most frustrating child, why love isn’t always enough and what to do if your child is falling through the cracks in school.

1. A lot of foster and adoptive parents assume that love is enough to heal a child from a hard place. Do you think love is enough? If not, what does it take to heal a child who’s experienced trauma?  

While I believe that love is the first and greatest need of every child ever born on this earth, I do not believe that love is sufficient to heal the wounds of the truly broken child. Of course, much hinges on how we define “love”! Are we thinking of it here as a noun or a verb? If it’s a noun, it has to be much more than the warm, fuzzy feeling we have when we look at the “sleeping angels” version of our children! If it’s a verb, just how do we go about this business of loving a broken child into wholeness? We can’t possibly love all people at all times by using the same set of behaviors. Even our spouses–who are grownups and not nearly as dependent on us as our children–sometimes need a hug, sometimes a word of encouragement, sometimes a rebuke, and sometimes a helping hand; all of these are included in our idea of “loving,” yet it takes great wisdom to know what is needed when. This complexity becomes a thousand times greater with a traumatized child.

 

2. Why is it often necessary to parent kids from foster care or an orphanage differently from biological kids?

 

Children whose brokenness is great will not respond to normal, instinctive parenting. They are unable (brain-wise) to make connections between their behaviors and the consequences (whether rewards or corrections) that result. These children will test every person in their lives in their constant attempts to prove to themselves what they already believe to be true: that they are not worth the loving care and that others can’t be trusted to give it anyway. Their tests can take the form of meltdowns, stealing, hoarding, lying, and many other challenging behaviors. If their tests are met with punishments, angry faces, flashing eyes, harsh tones of voice, threatening words, or other intimidating body language, then they have succeeded in controlling their caregivers and in reinforcing their deeply held beliefs that NO ONE can be trusted. Therefore it is essential that the caregivers use creative ways of maintaining control over themselves and their responses so as not to allow themselves to be manipulated by the needy child. This does not mean laughing AT the child, but it might mean finding something funny to do or say to break the tension. It means avoiding all-out confrontations and tugs of war with these broken kids in any way that works for that parent and that child. It means staying on the same team with the child at all costs rather than allowing that oh-so-challenging child to get you on the opposing team.

 

3. Your approach reminds me of “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” who came up with creative cures for many childhood ills! What are some other fun examples you’ve heard works for getting kids out of that “fight-or-flight mode” and grounded back into reality?

 

One example is a mom whose child was being very demanding at meal time. When given the blue cup, she wanted the red one. But then she didn’t want the red one; she wanted the green one. As soon as that one was handed over, she decided it just would not do and she MUST have the purple one. But that one is dirty. Yikes! And she’s quickly escalating into a full-blown fit!! (Remember, meanwhile, that this mom has other kids and really just wants to get the food on the table and everyone settled down to eat). So the mom laughed out loud and exclaimed, “Aren’t you being silly today?!?”; poured juice into the blue, the red, and the green cups; and drank all of them herself. Then she calmly, casually remarked that she must be a lot thirstier than the child, because she didn’t care what color the cups were; she just wanted something to drink. Then she promptly turned her attention to the other tasks at hand and told the girl to let her know when she was thirsty enough to drink out of whatever cup she was given.
If you’re following the example, the real effect here was not to de-escalate the child, but to throw her off her game–to prove to the child that she is NOT stronger and more controlling than the mom, that she can’t get the mom’s goat over every.silly.little.thing that she can throw a fit about. The mom successfully circumvented the contest of wills and left the child speechless, and she also maintained her own control and dignity as the adult in the room.

 

4. I know many foster moms whose children are failing in school and they’re exasperated because they’ve tried to reason with the kids, offer reward systems, discipline, you name it. Nothing’s worked. Is there anything that works?

 

Yes, there is something that works, but it isn’t about motivational aids or behavior charts. These broken kids’ brains just aren’t ready to make those connections yet. Their brains are totally focused on survival and on proving to themselves that No One Can Be Trusted. Ever. 
School performance is extremely complex, and until the child has a secure attachment with the caregivers it will be impossible to sort out. 
It is essential that the parent keep in mind that academic success in school is much less important than attachment and then eventually character. The first aim must be to prove to the child that he or she IS LOVABLE, and the second is to prove that THE PARENTS CAN BE TRUSTED TO CARE FOR THE CHILD ALWAYS. If the child can use school failures to provoke the parents, then he/she stays in control. The parents must be willing to give ownership of the child’s success or failure to the child, while always assuring that “I will always love you and I will always care for you.” NO MATTER WHAT. Shrugging off missed assignments or low grades while assuring the child of love and care takes away one more weapon that the child can use to control.

 

5. For those parents who are weary from the trenches of loving kids from hard places, what words of encouragement would you give?

 

First is that God knows your name! Read Nehemiah Chapter 3–possibly one of the most boring chapters in all of scripture. It lists one person after another after another who did this job or that job to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. If God our Father is that careful to note what was done to rebuild those walls, we can only imagine how painstakingly He regards those who are rebuilding the hearts of little children whom He created! Every time you fall asleep in tears, every time you collapse from exhaustion, every time you pour your heart out in anguished prayers, every time you give one.more.drink.of.water, every time you minister tender hugs and kisses when angry words fill your mind and mouth… God sees. God knows. God cares. And all the angels in heaven rejoice! Ephesians 3:10 assures us that every effort we make as unto our Lord makes a difference in unseen places. This is the stuff of God’s supernatural realm. This is where faith becomes action.
Second is this: God has special care, special love, special tenderness and affection for those who are caring for their young. When you don’t know which way to go or what to do… ask for His gentle leading. He is faithful and will always give it.

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