De-escalation Techniques in Foster Care – Gary Benton

See below for a full transcript of Gary’s talk you can watch here:


Think about yourself in relationship to your child as we do this stuff tonight and we talk about these different techniques and ideas and what’s going on.  I’m going to talk to you a little bit about stress. I’m going to talk about anger, where it comes from. We’ll talk about what kids are trying to do, and we’ll talk a little bit about brain research and put all that stuff together in terms of de-escalating. So if there’s any questions that come up, feel free to ask those as we go along.

The first thing I want to say to you—and I’m going to put this on this overhead here— and this is important and that is this; you cannot teach a child to “Not.” You can’t teach anybody to “Not.” Teaching is never about Not. It’s important to keep in mind that the children when they’re acting out are trying to solve a problem, and they’re doing it in ways, of course, that are making you or us crazy. And the goal is never to try to stop them from solving a problem but to keep them solving problems but to do that in ways that don’t make us crazy. So when we’re working on this stuff what’s important to keep in mind is you’ll never teach a child to not hit, not swear, not yell, not bite, not run, not throw, not anything. What you need to keep in mind is that you can only move forward. So I’ll give you a quick example. If you know how to ride a bicycle, there’s nothing I will ever do to teach you to not ride a bike; you’ll know how to ride a bike till the day you die, but if I teach you to drive a car and you find that driving the car is a whole lot more fun and functional than riding the bike, you’ll give a bike riding behavior and go to car driving behavior, so that’s really what we’re talking about. So keep in mind that we’re always trying to move forward with kids, we’re trying to teach them replacement behaviors; instead of this, do that—those kinds of things, and so we’ll be talking about those kinds of things too.


The first thing I want to talk about is stress. I’m going to put this overhead up; it’s called Stress Escalator. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Washington, and I’m a husky, and my undergraduate degree is in social work, but really, if you want to the truth, I was really a psychology major, and the School of Psychology at the University of Washington when I was there was a very behavioral. You can always tell a behavioral psychologists, we’re easy to spot because we like to zap small animals and students with electricity to see what happens to them—it’s really kind of entertaining in its own way. I don’t know if you’ve read much behavioral research but you may have noticed that behaviors never seem to zap large animals, things that would kill a researcher, you know, you never see them doing this to gorillas and bears for example, it’s always pigeons and rats and bunnies and students, things that are pretty pliable not real bright.

Anyway, what we did is we had about 200 students participate in this research and I was an observer, so I was one of several observers, and we were watching kids through a mirror and what we told these folks is they were going to take a multiple-choice math competency test. Now, we lied to them. The truth is it was a stress test, and one of the best things I think I ever learned in college is if you call it research it’s perfectly ethical to lie, so you might think about that at home. So we called it a research, and what we did is we gave these kids this multiple-choice math questions, they had this little apparatus that sat in their lap, they had a little probe, and all they had to do was stick the probe in the right hole in the right amount of time. The kicker to this is they were sitting in metal chairs that were wired up so if they didn’t get in the right hole or didn’t do it fast enough, they got zapped where they sat with this little bit of electricity, which we of course, defined a stimulus. They had other words but we really didn’t care.

Now on this little chart here on this axis is increasing stress, on this axis our problem solved, and what we did like good scientists – what we understand about stress is that as stress mounts in our life, as problems mount in our lives our tension level goes up, as our tension level goes up our bodies produce adrenaline, which is the old fight-or-flight response; now this happens to you, this happens to your kids, it just happens in general, I mean it’s just how people function.Under stress, as our stress goes up, our capillaries become constricted. And you may notice that when you’re nervous your hands will get cold and clammy, your nose and ears and toes will get cold, but what’s going on is those capillaries, those small blood vessels in the surface of your skin, are constricted, and as a result of that, two good things happen; first of all, there’s more blood available for your large muscles so you can run fast, defend yourself, climb trees, fight back, do whatever you have to do to survive. The second is because there’s less blood in the surface of your skin, if you get wounded you don’t bleed as much and you may have noticed you can be cutting a carrots up for a salad in your kitchen, for example, and you’ll be zipping along and you’ll knick your fingers like, “Ouch,” and you see the little slice, it hurts but doesn’t bleed right then, then you’re relax a little bit and realize the tips not going to fall out, it starts to dribble out and then it starts beating pretty good, then whatever you’re doing is typically done one-handed. Well, that’s the adrenal system, that’s the good news. The bad news about the adrenal system is is it really doesn’t care which capillaries it constricts, it constricts them all. And if you look at people are under stress over a long period of time, it’s largely the capillary fed systems in the body that break down. So for example, your digestive system is all capillary fed. People under stress for a long period of time often have stomach problems, colitis, ulcers, all kinds of things. Your lungs are a capillary system. Now, smoking will kill you, there’s no doubt about that, but smoking under stress dramatically improves the likelihood of cancer. But the neocortex, the surface of your brain where you make your most creative problem-solving decisions, that’s all capillary fed too, and under stress, those capillaries are constricted just like the ones in your hands; as a result of that, of course, problem-solving is affected.

So going back to this little research that we were doing. What we did is we had these kids sit down with their multiple choice math questions, and like good scientists, the first thing we did is we took baseline data; we just tried to figure out how many problems these kids could solve assuming no stress, then we turn the machines on which effectively increase their stress, and what happened with problem-solving actually got better. It turns out some stress really does help. A completely stress less life is not necessarily a creative one, and that’s why football players will psych up before football games, actors and actresses before performances, salespeople before presentation; we’re trying to raise our stress level so our performance improve, and we saw that. Then as the research went on the tension continued to build, there’s sort of a plateau where some stress is good but more isn’t necessarily better, so you get kind of to an optimum amount and probably everybody in the world has had this experience—and you I’m sure have had it, certainly, I have had it—where in life you’re running as fast as you can just to stay in place, it’s what we call the Alice in Wonderland experience; you’re going real fast but you’re not going anywhere and you’re just humming and your stress is real high and you know if there’s one more bad thing in life, you’re going to crash.

Well, one of the things you need to keep in mind about psychology is it’s a lot more entertaining to be a psychologist when people crash, that’s when it’s kind of fun. And so it was a little different for everybody in this research, but at some point people hit the wall and then problem solving just drop like a rock, and of course, the more mistakes they made, the more they got zapped, the more they got zapped the more mistakes they made; it was interesting kind of a tumble effect. What was important about this is that under stress not only did problem-solving get worse, which is predictable, it got more primitive. Under high stress we had college students counting on their fingers to solve math problems that they were doing in their heads back here when stress was much lower. Now, if any of you have a first grader, they’re around the house tonight, just walk up to them and say “How much is eight plus five?” and you’re very likely to see that behavior [counting on fingers] eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. And under stress, adults were doing the very same thing.

What we learned out of that is that under stress, not only this problem-solving get worse, it gets more primitive, and we call that regression, but basically, it means we get younger, we just go back. Now you guys have kids that move into your house and sometimes they start acting much younger than their age, it’s like “Why is this twelve-year-old acting like they’re nine?” or “Why is this seven year old acting like he or she’s four or five?” you see this odd behavior, and that’s called regression, they move back. But keep in mind, we talk about us too, and this happens to adults as well.

I’ll tell you a quick story. A friend of mine is Ray Holm, and he’s a police officer with Seattle Police Department, and I’ve known Ray for a long, long time and I asked him, I said, “Ray, you remember the first time you had to pull your gun out on duty,” and he does. He and his partner, Kelly, were beat officers in Pioneer Square, that old town part of Seattle, which is a walking beat, they were young officers, it’s about 11:30 on a beautiful sunny day, they’re walking along and they get a call over the radio and a bartender has called up and said that some guy has a gun and he’s drunk in a bar down there and he’s waving it around and Ray and Kelly have to go deal with it. Well, as you can imagine for Ray and Kelly the stress just went straight up it’s like, “Oh man, here we go,” and they do the police thing. Kelly walks in the back door, Ray walks through the front door. As Ray walks to the door, he pulls out his gun, he says, “Nobody moves or I’ll blow your heads off!” He said 18 hands went straight up in the bar, the gun clang, clang, clang on the floor, and Kelly comes around the corner and says, “Blow your heads off? You know that’s not standard police training,” and Ray said, “It’s all I could think of.” Well, I can tell you what happened to Ray; under high stress, he went over the top and he regressed, he became about 10 when he was playing cops and robbers in his neighborhood, he’d get to drop on a friend and said, “Don’t move…” and there he was. He had simply gotten younger.

But this happens to us too. My daughter is 20, almost 21, she’s a sophomore at Western, wants to be a special ed teacher, which is really kind of fun to think about.But when she was little, especially in grade school, I believed in year-round schools. Now I don’t know if they’re better educationally, to be honest with you, I didn’t care, I just figure after three weeks of summer put the kids back in because they’re bored, right? And so Lindsay would walk up to me about the third or fourth week of summer and she would say “I’m bored.” Now, she wouldn’t do it this sweet, delightful, “Gosh, I hope we can find something to do,” kind of a way; it’s a whinny, nasally accusing sound, “I’m bored,” like it’s my fault. And I’m of course a warm, caring, creative dad and my stress is relatively low so I would start to suggest things, “Well you could do this or you could do that, you could play with this, you can play with that, how about this, or how about that?” And she would say, “That’s dumb, that’s stupid, that’s boring, I don’t want to do that,” and I got to tell you, it didn’t take me very long, and I was right up against this little wall here and I’m thinking to myself “You know, I’ve only spent about eight million dollars on toys, play with one of them,” that doesn’t help it at all, but sure as well there you go.

Well, it didn’t help, she would keep whining and pretty soon I would go over the top, and all of a sudden I’m on this side of the bar—and I should explain this. I don’t believe in channeling; however, I’m not far from Yelm where J.Z. Knight lives, you know she channels Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis, and I can tell you even though I don’t believe in channeling, if you can channel a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis, there is money in it—goodness. I have driven by her house, her fence is worth more than my house. But, I don’t believe in channeling; what was interesting to me is I would go over the top and I would , and lo and behold, I’d begin to channel, and the person I channel is my dad, his spirit is my body, his voice and his words come out of my mouth, I’d start saying things like, “You’re bored?!  I will put you to work right now!” and I had regressed. That’s going to happen to you; you’re going to find yourself with this kid, and you may find that you are quoting your parent and you swore you are never going to say those things to kids when you were a kid, and lo and behold, you’re possessed by your mom or your dad and there you go.

So this basically says two things, there’s two important things to keep mind; number one, keep in mind, this happens to everybody, this happens to you,this happens to your honey, this happens to your kids, this happens to your friends, this happens in life, this happens in families. The first thing to keep in mind is that when stress is high in a family in any kind of a relationship the other thing that has to be high is forgiveness; you have to be willing to let people make mistakes, and you have to be willing to let yourself make mistakes—nobody’s perfect and that’s how life is going to go. So the first thing to keep in mind is you have to be willing to forgive people for regressing, for getting younger,  if that’s going to happe.The second is is as a foster parent, you have to make a commitment to self-care, you have to do things on purpose to reduce your stress, because if you don’t, it’s only a matter of time before you go over the top, and lo and behold, what will happen is you’ll find yourself doing what you swore you didn’t want to do.

Anything you learn tonight or in any other sessions – this is such a great opportunity, I think, for learning, it’s there’s so many things that are coming for you. But even all those great things that you may learn, put you under enough stress and you just fall back into earlier problem-solving behavior. Also keep in mind, this is true for your children, your children have had, they built the fences, they figured out ways to manage people and behaviors and relationships and losses, and all the things that they have gone through, and they may intend to be better, they may want to do better, but under enough stress they will regress and you’ll see them doing the oddest things. I ran a group home for teenage boys for six years, the first six years of my career I worked in a group home with teenage boys. I made several commitments; the first as I was never ever, ever going to have a teenager. I certainly had enough of that, but I of course did. The second thing is I was never going to work in a group home again, but in the meantime I certainly have, but it’s that—when looking at those kids we could tell their family patterns just by watching them under stress; these kids were 14, 15, 16, and we would see behaviors show up that looked like seven or eight or nine, and we knew that that was a stress reaction those kinds of things are going on. So keep that little piece of it in mind.

The second piece that I want to talk about for a moment here is this concept of locus of control. The theory in life is that we have one of two choices, and we’ll talk about the top half of this handout here. The first is that you can be internally controlled or externally controlled. A person who is internally controlled, for all intents and purposes, says “I make me” and then you fill in the blank with think or feel or act; it’s about that simple. An externally controlled person, for all intensive purposes, says “You or life or circumstances makes me,” and then fill in the same blank feel think or act I’ll write ditto. Okay, when we take a look at people who are well controlled, who manage themselves well, who are successful, they almost invariably internally controlled. And the reason for that makes good sense; if you think about that for a moment, if I’m an internally controlled person and I don’t like the way my life is going, who has to change? Well, I do of course. If I’m an externally controlled person and I don’t like the way my life is going, who has to change? Well, it’s everybody else. And when we get caught up in this—I don’t know how successful you’ve been at changing other people, but I find myself wildly unsuccessful; I have a hard time changing me, for crying out loud. And so when we get involved in this it’s very important that you keep it at home. If you believe this child of yours can make you feel good or bad about yourself, they own you. If you believe this child can make you successful or unsuccessful, they own you. If you believe this child can make you angry, they own you.

Let me give you a quick little illustration of that. One of my very best friends is Dave. Dave and I grew up together. Now if you met us we would appear very different. Dave’s a truck driver and is very good as a mechanic; he’s just an interesting guy, but we have shared three loves all our lives: we love baseball, hot rods, and blondes—sometimes in that order, kind of varies. And Dave had the good sense to marry a blonde, Linda, and I had the good sense to marry a blonde, Donna, and as it turns out the two of them had the good sense to become great friends too. So we have been friends for 30 years or more, I suppose, now when I think about it. But, Dave is a marine, an ex-marine, and he absolutely hates waiting in lines, just hates waiting in lines. And what’s interesting about it, he says is a left over from Marine Corps, he said, “You run everywhere and then you stand,” and so that that’s how that goes. Several years ago we decided as families it would be great fun to go to Disneyland.

Now I don’t know if you’ve been to Disneyland, but if you haven’t, trust me, now and then there’s a line there. And I can remember standing in line outside Splash Mountain, and David and Linda and Donna and I and Missy and Lindsay, all of our kids were all standing there. And you know I love lines, I’m a people person, I find them just for this long moving story, I just kind of look forward to standing in lines, and here Dave is standing right next to me and we are in the very, very same line, Dave’s more and more frustrated, I’m more and more fascinated, and it has nothing to do with the line; it has to do with our interpretation of the line. When you look at this child, if you find yourself getting angry with this child, the first thing you want to ask yourself is: what am I telling myself? How am I getting myself into it? because if the truth is, all your feelings belong to you, all your thoughts belong to you, all your actions belong to you so it’s very important to keep it at home. If you can teach that to a child, you may as a foster parent never ever get the benefit of that, but if the child learns that—someday they’re going to be in a relationship and those folks are going to be so glad that he or she learned this because the first thing we want to do is look back inside.

So the first thing I want you to keep in mind about this, because we’re going to start talking here now about anger in a minute, is it keep it at home. If you find yourself successful, it’s your fault.If you find yourself unsuccessful, it’s also your fault. If you find yourself happy, it’s your fault. If you find yourself unhappy, it’s your fault, and if you find yourself angry, it’s your anger.Keep it with you, don’t start giving it away to this child; it makes them way too powerful in your family. One last little thin—let me… I want you to just… I’m going to ask you an easy question, this is not difficult, I mean after all, we don’t want anybody to feel like failures. I’m trying to find a blank overhead here and just say…Okay, here we go. I I’m really embarrassed here. I’m not having a blank. Okay, well, I’m going to find it.Okay, we’re going to try to be very creative. Here we go. Let me just ask you; how many of you own televisions? Silly question, of course you own televisions. And how many of you have seen aspirin commercials?My guess is you’ve seen Advil, Tylenol, Excedrin, things like that. The question I want to ask you is what do aspirin commercials sell? Now, some of you are starting to think things like, “Well…relief,” which is of course true, and others of you think, “Well, aspirin, they sell aspirin and they talk about doctor recommended, and have you ever noticed that there are people suddenly who look better after taking the pill?” I mean, there’s lots of good things, but if you watch an aspirin—I  would encourage you sometime tonight to do this, just ask yourself what does this commercial sell? You’ll notice that the first thing in aspirin commercial sells you is either pain or stress. Typically, before you see the product, before you hear how well it works, any of those, before you hear four out of five hospitals or just doctor recommended, you’re very likely to see an actor or actress either acting out pain or they’re talking about pain, something like that.Excedrin is my favorite; they tend to fill your TV screen with this person’s head and it looks like their legs being amputated off screen without anesthetic, “Oh, I’ve got a splitting headache,” what advertisers understand is something you never want to forget, particularly, when dealing with difficult kids, and that is, our conscious memory is built into pieces; we have a factual piece and a feeling piece. And what makes your memory and mind work are not the facts in our heads but the feelings attached to the facts. So in other words, it’s much easier to remember a memory that has a strong feeling attached to it than one that doesn’t have much feeling attached to it at all. If I asked you what you’re doing two weeks ago today, my guess is unless it was something pretty special it’s just kind of hard to remember. If I asked you where you were on September 11th when the World Trade Center got hit, my guess is that’s a pretty indelible moment, you’ll remember that probably for the rest of your life. When I work with teachers around the United States I can ask him where they were when they heard that the Challenger blew up, and they hardly ever forget. And I’m old enough to tell you where I was in high school when I heard that John Kennedy had been shot. Those things are indelible moments, but what’s important to understand is whether we like it or not every time we deal with somebody we’re selling a feeling; advertisers understand that, and what advertisers do is they sell us the same feeling over and over again and then tie their product to it. The hope is when we have the feeling, we’ll think of the product, and when we want the feeling, we’ll think of the product. So for example, aspirin sales pain and ties it’s product to it, beer sells fun and sex, romance, ties its product to it. Life insurance is my favorite; it sells guilt and fear and ties it’s product to it. And let me just ask you a rhetorical question, 10  minutes after you’re gone, do you really think you’ll care? But let that go.

Okay, the hope is when you have the feeling you’ll think of the product, when you want the feeling you’ll think of the product. Whether you like it or not, every time you deal with somebody – whether it’s a child, an adult – whether you like it or not you’re always selling a feeling. Now as you know, I work with difficult kids, and I get to work with them in all kinds of settings, including schools. But every now and then I’ll walk into a school and I’ll notice that not only are there difficult children, there are difficult staff members, and my guests some of you have had an opportunity to work with difficult people and difficult adults, and have you ever noticed—maybe you’ve had one of these experiences where you’re busy, you’re in your office, or whatever is you’re setting—you come stepping out into the hallway and that difficult person is coming down the hall and they haven’t seen you so you duck back in and you hide and you let them go by and once they go by then you step out in the hallway and you flee. What’s important to understand about that moment is nothing’s happened, nothing has happened; they haven’t seen you, they haven’t spoken to you, they haven’t interacted with you in any way, but because of the feeling attached to that person you’re already reacting.

The first question you want to ask yourself about yourself as a foster parent with this child is what feeling do I want this child to feel about me, not about the world but about me personally? When they see me coming, what feeling do I want them to have? And usually, people do this little exercise and sit down and kind of give you a chance to think about it.Most people say things like I want them to believe I’m loving or I’m kind or I’m safe or I’m fair or I’m funny or I’m nice or I’m patient, good stuff, good stuff. Nobody ever seems to put down the words like crabby, cranky, swamped, overwhelmed, angry—which of course is also a normal human things, but I want you to think about that.In fact, here’s a little assignment, if you have nothing better to do with your life, I would suggest that you decide one feeling that you want to sell to your kids for the next couple of weeks and you write that feeling on a piece of paper, on a post-it note, whatever and put it on the refrigerator, someplace where you’re going to run into it first thing in the morning, maybe put a second one someplace where you could see it all day long, but the idea is to get conscious about this.

I’ll tell you another Lindsey story. I was working with teachers, and I get evaluations, and one evaluation had this little comment, and that was: “My pastor has a deal with his children that any time he mentions them from the pulpit he has to pay them a dollar,” and then the next comment was: “You owe Lindsey a lot of money.” But anyway, so here’s a little Lindsey story. When Lindsey was in fifth grade we were doing homework together, and I don’t know what happens in fifth grade, but there’s a whole lot more homework, and I was reading Stephen Covey’s book the  7 Habits of Highly Effective People which says that everybody should have a mission statement for their life. Now, I don’t know if you’ve tried to write a mission statement for your life, but let me tell you, that is a bogus exercise. I tried it and I gave up and finally wrote it for a year, and I rewrite it now every year—so does Covey, by the way. He and I are different; I write mine in my car on the freeway between meetings because there’s lots of time there, and he goes to Hawaii and sits on the beach and every December writes his, and it’s a little different life.

Anyway, I decided among other things—you know I’m like everybody, I’m like you, I have a lot of hats I wear, a lot of roles I play, but I decided I want to be my daughter’s favorite teacher. Now I’m never going to be her best teacher, especially not in math; the reason I wound up in social worker is I never did figure out math, so that wasn’t my goal to be her best teacher, but I could be her favorite teacher. That means when we sit down to do homework together, I didn’t care about getting the right answers. The right answers were not important to me. What mattered to me, my goal was at the end of the homework experience we would like each other as much, or better. Because I know something—and you all know this too—three weeks, three months, three years later she was not going to remember if we got number  right or wrong but she’d never forget what it felt like to do homework with her dad minded, and by default, problem solving, and that mattered to me. And what is interesting about that—now, we call the ages of 14 and 15 in our family “The Dark Ages,” I mean we have no idea what was going on and there’s no recorded history, it was just this black hole in time. Even in the dark ages with Lindsay, in those real difficult times, homework was a place where we got along, and the reason for that is we had good feelings between us. Now, I want to encourage you to keep that in mind you’re going to deal with your child and your kids and lots of public to come and go but underneath it the relationship is what’s going to matter, underneath it the relationship is what’s going to drive that change, and so I’m going to encourage you to keep in mind that you’re selling a feeling.

All right, that’s enough of that, let’s talk about anger and where it comes from.One of the interesting things about brain research and some of the things that we’re taking a look at now is that there’s an element of anger inside every difficult behavior, and the reason for that is simply has to do with the limbic system, the way the brain is organized, it angers a motivator, it gets us to change behavior. So whenever we’re talking about difficult kids and acting out kids and things like that, we’re always talking at least in part about anger. Now we’re going to focus more on the behavior because that’s obviously what we have to deal with. But I’ll give you this quick little model to explain sort of how we think about anger where it comes from. We always start up here with genetics so with childhood experiences, and there’s two things that we look at; we look at genetics and then we add to that all the stuff that we learn, and in effect, that creates us. Now if you have any of your own biological kids, you know they even with the same biological parents they just don’t start out the same. Some kids can run fast and some kids can’t, some kids can sing, some kids are good at math and some kids are good in groups and some kids are good by themselves, and some of that is genetic. And then you couple that with all the stuff that we have learned, and that in effect creates us, and that then drives our self-image or our self-esteem. There’s a tendency to talk about self-image or self-esteem like it’s a thing, like I could have a good self-image or a poor self-image or a good self-esteem or poor self-esteem; but really, my self-image is going to vary from situation to situation depending on my childhood experiences. For example, I’m a terrible,carpenter, my father is a terrible carpenter, there’s a whole genetic flaw in my family, I’m pretty sure, around carpentry. I can read a sunset plan but boy I can’t miter a corner to save my life it’s an interesting and curious thing. On the other hand, I feel real good about myself as a softball player. If I have a choice on a Saturday between building a planter box and playing softball, if I have any brains, I’ll go play softball because even if we lose I’m going to feel better about myself than this stupid planter box which really should have been an ashtray.

So it’s no different, we are all like this. You’re like this, there are parts of your life that you feel good about, there are parts of your life you don’t feel so good about, it’s true for your kids —lots of things are going on. But keep that in mind that underneath that, this is in effect us, this is what we carry to every event and every experience thereafter. Tthat self image leads us to whatever event, and it doesn’t matter. And as you know, sometimes your children act out and you don’t have a clue what happened, they just all of a sudden they’re yelling or tantrumning or throwing things or whatever they’re doing and it’s like, “Oh my goodness, what happened?” Well sometimes you don’t know, and it may well have been something from their past, something that came up, it may be long before you, and so that’s the deal. So we don’t worry about the events, we don’t know what the triggers are necessarily; the rest of the stuff is what we care about.

The event leads to some kind self statement. Now, depending on the age of the children that you have, if you’re working with late-late teenagers sometimes they can hear their own self statements, but typically, most of us can’t even get sort of conscious about what am I telling myself until we’re late teens to early 20s. But I will tell you this, if you’re worried about your own personal experience—of course I’m only dealing with adults here— if you’re worried about your own personal mental health, I can give you the simplest mental health test in the world. Any time you hear yourself using the word “should,” you’re crazy. It’s just this simple little thing is that…Aren’t you glad you’ve dialed in tonight here to find out that, oh my goodness, the reason for that is the shoulds in life show up between about the ages of 7 and 14 in child development, it’s what’s called the law and order stage of moral development. And if you any of you have 10-year-olds right now you have heard this line until you’re sick of it “that’s not fair,” these kids have this incredible sense of justice and this that and the other thing.

But, one of the things it’s interesting—remember I talked about under stress how we regress, how we go back to earlier problem-solving behavior, put you and me under enough stress and we’ll go back to about that developmental stage, we’ll start quoting the rules. In fact, we can look at September 11th and take a look at our own country and what happened to us, you’ll notice that stress went way up and Congress promptly started passing rules, and some of them limited our civil liberties, which is okay I don’t have a problem with that, I mean it was a crazy time and we needed to be safe and be smart. So I’m not saying that there’s anything bad about that, but it’s a classic human response is when stress goes up, we start quoting the rules; when stress goes up in organizations we want policies and procedures, it’s just how that goes and you’re not going to be different than that. When stress goes up, you’re suddenly going to want rules and your families could be an interesting kind of thing. So if you hear yourself using the word should: men should this or women should that, or kids should this, or parent should that, or government should this, or whatever; keep in mind you’re probably about ten. That drives the feelings.

Now, your kids are not going to necessarily hear their own self statements, but their feelings they have access to probably from before birth from what we can sell right now, the two feelings I would encourage you to take a hard look at for children who are acting out is either fear or hurt. Those two seem to drive a lot of anger which drives the behavior. And some of your kids have childhood experiences that include abandonment, they include abuse, all kinds of different things have happened to them, and they may well be the two kinds of fears I see most often in difficult kids, and one is a fear of intimacy. Many of your kids have learned real early in life if people get close to me they hurt me, and so what they do is they find ways to act out as a way to drive you away to keep you at arm’s length, emotionally speaking. Others of your kids may have a fear of abandonment that many of your kids have learned real early in life if people get close to me they leave me, and so they have attachment disorders to all kinds of things; you may get some odd behavior to try to keep you involved—some interesting things are going on.

There’s also two kinds of hurt: there’s physical pain, which certainly will drive anger, and there’s emotional pain which will also drive anger. So if you have a child who’s angry, who’s acting out whatever, the first question you want to ask yourself is “Oh my goodness, what is this child feeling? Is there something going on under there?” That drives the anger, and anger of course is a motivator and that drives the behavior to try to solve the problem. And unfortunately, of course, this is where you and I step in. All of a sudden we have a child acting out and we’re thinking to ourselves, “Oh my goodness, what happened?” and the great temptation is to go way back up here to the event and take a look at the event and say, “Aha,” but you know what?It may not be the event, it may be that there’s something else going on, and this self statement came from somewhere else, all kinds of things can happen. So we don’t worry too much about what event caused behavior, we do worry about the behavior.

But now here we are, now we’ve entered the equation and we have a choice. And as a foster parent, this is of course where the art and the science unfortunately land in your living room as opposed to mine. You have to make a decision. Great parents react, not necessarily interact. I think that there are some behaviors that are well worth ignoring; don’t feel like you have to get involved with every single behavior this child has, but the goal is to choose it. And this reaction has to be based on your “personal values.” It has to be based on what you believe is right or wrong for your family, for this child within this setting; that part of it is something that you just have to live. That’s what makes you so important, is that your values are on the line every day, no way around that, and the trick is to be conscious about our values. Don’t just do things unconsciously or because we’ve always done it or our parents did it; it’s to make good conscious decisions. When that happens, children, even angry children can learn, angry folks can learn a lot, they’re motivated to change and so there’s that stuff that’s going on. Where I see people get into trouble, and particularly foster parents or others who are dealing with these difficult children, is they wind up over here. They’re so burned out either with this child or with just in general whatever might be going on that they wind up on this side equation where they either they don’t react, which emotionally speaking, has the same effect as abandoning the child which is going to drive fear, or they overreact which does the same thing, it convinces the child that you can’t be trusted. Either of those drives a child toward a survival reaction, and survival means that the child shuts down emotionally, they leave you, you can’t touch them; at that point they’re just going to do whatever they’re going to do to get through. And I know that many of you have worked with kids who have really struggled, and you have seen them shut themselves down, it’s like “Are you in there?” one way or another, or they act out, it has the same effect, so those kinds of things are going on.

Carolyn Jones: We have a question from East Wenatchee: “We have an angry child that tries to make herself feel better by doing what she wants to do regardless of consequences even when she’s having a good day. Do you have any suggestions for helping her to stay out of this negative cycle?

Gary Benton: Oh, that is so hard. I would love know how old she is, those kinds of things are helpful, but I would certainly say that the first thing any time we have a child who’s beginning to act out and you wind up with that kind of response is, emotionally speaking, you want to move in closer, you actually probably want to touch her a little bit more—we’re going to talk about brains in a minute with that process—but you want to actually move in closer and talk to her about what you see, and if you can, ask her what’s going on. Now, depending on her age, she may not have a clue, she may not even be able to respond. And I would certainly suggest invariably, when you ask a child a feeling question, if you don’t get a response, give them one. Okay, suggest them. “Well, I’ll tell you, when I was your age and that happened, this is what I would be feeling,” because the goal is always to get the child to look back inside to talk about that emotional stuff. But I would say, primarily, even when she’s having a great day something is going on with her, and my guess is she’s probably doesn’t have many great days, so no matter how we can look at that she’s just struggling along. So you probably want to move in closer emotionally—I’ll talk about that a little bit in a few minutes with that.

I will say this; when we coming back to this little flow chart. When we take a look at this, since the behavior is the first thing that we get, that’s the first thing you want to respond to. And I want to ask you and I want you to think about this for yourself; how do you express anger? How do you let your kids know that you’re mad at ? How do you let them know that you’re fed up with them? How do you let them know that you’re just frustrated? What is it that you do? That’s the first thing. Keep in mind you’re modeling it, and I would encourage you to think about that. When we were running our group homes, one of the things that we did with all of our house parents—and we ran like therapeutic group homes so we had five, six ,or seven kids living with  group home parents and then we had subs, and it was an interesting kind of a system to try to work—but the first thing we taught all of our children was how to be angry in our house. And we basically worked on…Remember, we were working with teenage boys 12 to 18 so some of these kids were real big kids. It was a very interesting and stimulating kind of environment, but the first thing we wanted them to do is move their big muscles. Now think about your body, your biggest muscles or your thigh, that’s where your largest muscles are, and the reason we wanted them to move their thighs so we wanted them moving, we want them shooting basketballs, we want to bounce it on trampolines, we wanted them stomping, we didn’t care, but the idea was to move their muscles because that burns the adrenaline off, that helps kids breathe better, and it gives us an opportunity to help them think so that’s the first thing we wanted them to do. The second thing we wanted them to do is to have an opportunity to do something with the feelings; to talk about it to draw it, to color it, to squeeze it, to whatever, it didn’t matter to us too much so long as we work toward feelings. And then the third thing and the final thing was, okay, now that we’ve moved, now that we had a chance to talk about our feelings or think about our feelings or express our feelings in some way, now what are we going to…? Then we had to problem solve. So whatever you do—and you have to decide this in your family what is  okay—but I would encourage you, anytime you have a child who’s upset to encourage first movement, then feelings, then thoughts, sort of working backwards up this scale.

So we always start with behaviors, but the behaviors again—it goes back to what I said earlier, this has to be based on your personal values, you have to decide when it’s okay in our family to express anger and teach it on purpose. Keep in mind your kids are coming to you—your foster kids in particular are coming to you with all kinds of models, and some of them have been terrible, some of them the only model they had was when all else failed you hit people. Well, that probably is not something you want to teach and so you want to think about, okay, we need to have big muscle movement but we don’t want it to be hitting, kicking, punching, those kinds of things. And I would encourage you to be very careful about that; I think foster homes are a place where we can learn to be healthy and we can learn to act in ways that are not destructive to people, so I would encourage you to when you’re working with these kids to talk about movement, to think carefully about movement.

But what is more important perhaps is once you deal with the behavior, then to talk about the feelings to say “Okay, what are you feeling underneath?” Now, if you’re working with boys, asking a boy a feeling question is, of course, a hopeless exercise. It’s a wonderful thought and it doesn’t hurt to ask, but hoping that you’re going to get a response anytime in the next week is just very difficult. So when you ask me to get the [Shrugging shoulders] “I don’t know,” kind of response, at least say “Well, I’ll tell you what, when that happened to me this is what I would be feeling.” You don’t have to be right. In fact, that’s one of the things I sort of love about difficult kids is you’re never worried about being right because of course you’ll have another chance, sooner or later it’s coming. So the idea is to just offer so that kids get the idea that there is something underneath, because the reality is if I can change my feeling the anger goes away, and if the anger goes away, the behavior changes so that’s why we’re always working up this scale in this particular way.

All right, let me talk to you for a moment about brains. Next week when we talk about kids we’re going to talk about why, what’s underneath it, but this in particular is about focusing on just defusing kids. And so I want to give you this model… I was at a conference in Cincinnati  about brain research and they talked about the concept of what’s called a Triune Brain, or a three-part, three-in-one brain, however you want to think about this. And this particular model has been around for a while and it’s very interesting. We think of the brain from a learning and a problem-solving point of view as being built in three pieces, and we start down here with the survival brain, sometimes called the old brain or reptilian brains, called all kinds of different things. But from a learning and a problem-solving point of view, this brain is very interested in structure, in safety, in predictability, in routine, in traditions, in rules. This brain just wants things to be the way things are supposed to be. So this brain, for example, runs your morning routine— and I don’t know about you, I’m a morning person, I get up early, and I have time to myself and I kind of like that. And I’m married to Donna. We’ve been married almost 30 years, and I know I love her but I have to tell you—and she’s not a morning person, you know, you always marry the wrong people, that’s how life goes. And so she’s not a morning person, if she gets up early it just throws my morning off, I’m just kind of out of sync, you know, until I get to my next thing which is typically sitting in traffic on my way to work, and so that’s how that goes. But most of you have probably had a survival brain moment, it goes kind of like this, you get in your car to drive home from work or someplace familiar and you remember getting in your car and the next thing you know you’re home and you remember nothing of the drive in between; it’s like “Oh my goodness, did I run the red lights? Did I hit somebody?” That’s a survival brain moment; your survival brain is taking home 500 times, it can take you home 500 to 1—it’s just routine.

On top and behind this is the limbic system or the emotional brain. This is the feeling brain or the relationship brain. This brain likes to have an effect on people, be affected by people, but it’s pretty much what you think about when you think about your emotional life, and so this brain really motivates processing, and this is the brain that motivates thoughts and problem-solving. And that leads us then up here to the neocortex or the thinking brain. This is the creative brain, the novelty brain, the problem-solving brain. What’s interesting about us as people is that while the survival brain hates change, the thinking brain loves it, and that’s why whenever there’s change there’s also stress; these two brains are sort of working with each other. We take a look at how people problem-solve and learn, we always learn problem solved from the bottom up. First things need to be safe and predictable, then we develop good relationships, then we start solving problems. When we watch people shutdown and we watch people stress out, they always stress out from the top down. The first thing that goes is the thinking brain—and you may have noticed that under stress you’ll be like that. You and I, we’re all very similar in that sense. Under high stress, all of a sudden, we just start getting flaky. You know how it is, you start three projects and by the end of the day you have four starting, you don’t concentrate very well, you make silly mistakes, you can’t even make the calculator work to do…you know? It’s all that kind of… so you just kind of get flaky, and most of us have these little self-care routines that we do to kind of bounce ourselves back and we’re okay.

But if the stress maintains itself and it stays up long enough, pretty soon the thinking brain will start to shut down and the emotional brain will start to kick up. And what’s interesting about that is when the emotional brain starts to kick up, all of a sudden we find ourselves doing goofy things: we start getting more emotional, we get touchy, we laugh more, cry or get angry easier, all kinds of different things, but we just start getting more emotional. Now let’s not… we’ll talk about them instead of us. But if you’ve ever been around somebody who’s burned-out at work or whatever, you’ve seen this progression, and you may notice when they started getting touchy—have you ever noticed everybody just kind of backs off? It’s like “Well I’ll talk to you later,” or “I’ll talk to you after lunch. I’ll find some chocolate…” or whatever is a little first aid kinds of techniques, and we’re just saying “Oh my goodness, let’s just back off a little bit.”

If the stress maintains itself the emotional brain will start to really intrude. If you’ve ever watched somebody who’s really burned out, who’s really gone down the line you’ll see them making emotional decisions. They’ll make silly buy… they’ll buy sports cars or sailboats, they’ll have affairs, they’ll eat more, eat less, all kinds of things. If it’s a friend you walked up to and said, “What were you thinking when you bought that old MG?” which I really wish people had asked me about twice in my life now, in case you’re curious. Odds are they’re going to say something like “I just want to feel something good for a change,” and what they’re telling you is that the thinking brain is not terribly involved but the emotional brain is really working.

Under the highest stress, we get down here to the survival brain. Down here, people have what we call a flat effect; they appear to be depressed, they don’t have much energy, they don’t want to do anything. If this is a co-worker at work, if this is a person you swing by their office and say “Hey would you like to go out to lunch?” they don’t want to go, “Oh no, I’ve got all this work to do,” and working right through their lunch hour. If there’s somebody, if a party’s coming up and say “Hey, so and so is retiring, you’re coming,” they don’t want to be a part of it. All those things start to happen. And those folks if you ask them; how would you like you like to go? They’ll say”Look, all I’m gonna do is go to work, go home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed, start again tomorrow. I’m just trying to get through this.” A very controlled life.

When we’re working…You guys, of course, are working with kids who are coming into your home out right out of chaos, it’s just out of this crisis. And when that happens you want to use this particular model as a way to respond to your kids. Actually, this happens at any point in time. The survival brain—some things about the surviving brains— it takes about  hours or about three days for the survival brain to settle down after crisis. That’s why I can pretty confidently predict that if you have a child who’s living in your home going home for home visits and then coming back, that first day back is awful, they’re just all over the map. And they may have gone home to a pretty chaotic family, there’s a lot of emotional stuff going on, and they come home and they’re just all over the map, and you’ll notice it takes about three days before they kind of settle in and work with that stuff. When I work with teachers I can tell you, every teacher will tell you their most difficult kids are most difficult on Monday, and that’s because the school day tends to be the most predictable for that child and then they go to this chaos at home over the weekend and then it gets very difficult. But this is true for you too, if there’s a crisis of any kind you need to wait a figure that’s going to be about three days before you kind of get back into life.

The other thing that this particular brain needs is it needs high predictability, so things like meals; the more predictable mealtimes can be, for example, that really helps, the more predictable sleep times can be, that really helps the more predictable chore times can be, that really helps— anything that you can do to get kids into a routine. I was working with a family week before last and they have a six-year-old girl who’s struggling with a lot of different things, but certainly, likely to be an oppositional disorder kind of kid, but what we have found is if we make things incredibly structured, there’s hope for her. But boy, I got to tell you, she has to get up within five it’s either way just to get the morning started right, and she has to eat meals just at the right time and there’s all that kind of stuff that’s going on. So this can be very,very difficult, but I would certainly encourage you—and depending on older kids, this is a little bit easier—but certainly build in that there are certain times when things are done, and you make sure that that structure is predictable, so bedtimes and those kinds of things are very,very important.

For the emotional brain, this is the impact—one of the things that I would encourage you to do is to always take the acting out—good or bad it doesn’t matter, either way— behavior of the child personally every single time. Now, if your foster child has just punched his brother, that obviously has an effect on his brother, and that’s obvious, but I want it to have an effect on you, I want you to say to that child “When you punched him, I felt. Same as when you helped me with the dishes, I felt; when you picked up your room, I felt; when you came home on time, I felt.” Those things, but you want to make it personal. And the reason for that is the gateway to the thinking brain, to the problem-solving brain is right through the limbic system; if we don’t stimulate the emotional brain we’ll never get to the thinking brain.

One of the things some of you I know are working with kids with attention deficit disorders, and that’s what we’re guessing right now about that— nobody is clear as we would like it to be— is that there’s some kind of damage where the emotional brain speaks to the thinking brain. For all of us, for you, for me, for everybody that we know, it’s limbic system stimulation or emotional brain stimulation that drives cortical activity – thinking. So if I can capture somebody’s heart, the odds are I can get their head, and that’s how it goes. And with ADD and ADHD kinds of kids they’re no different, I mean they’re just like the rest of us, except that they tend to be brighter than the average kid so they you have these bright kids. What happens to them is that because of the damage they can’t ignore the next stimulation, and so what we see happen to them is that every time there’s a new stimulation it drives new cortical activity. So if this child is in school, for example, and the teacher is giving instructions, the teacher starts off and the child is attending to the teacher and this classmate drops his pencil so he pays it into that; and then that classmate starts to whisper, he pays attention to that; then the janitor pushes a broom down the hallway, he pays attention to that; then a dog walks by the window, he pays attention to that, and the teacher says “All right, get started,” the child is like “What am I supposed to do?” Well, what has happened is each of those activities has driven new cortical…Each of those stimulation is driven new cortical activity, and as a result of that, they have they get caught up in it.

So my suggestion is when you’re dealing with a child, an ADD child is the first thing is don’t over stimulate the emotional brain; what you want to do is remain very calm when you’re dealing with this child. These kids are motivated by relationship but not by emotions which means that if you can move into them, if you can impact them, if you can talk to them about who you are, how they affect you, that helps them—but remain calm. The second thing is don’t explain, just don’t explain. They’re very bright, odds are they’ve heard it 15 times, odds are they know your lectures, my guess is they take it outside and mimic your lectures, you don’t need to tell them again.

But the third thing is make sure that there is a very real consequence for the behavior. And I will tell you my favorite consequence just—because why not— my favorite consequence for everything is work. There’s two reasons for that. The first is it’s always time limited; when the job is done the consequence is over. You don’t have to put on restriction and then stay home to make sure they stay on it and some of the things. I always think that’s kind of fun. The second thing is you can talk about the effect of the work on you, and this is what my favorite suggestion, and some people think I’m a little crazy about this, but oh well, make sure that since they have affected you personally by acting out that the job, the consequence also affects you personally “Well, you punched your brother, that made me feel sad. What’s going to make me feel better is if you help me with the dishes so come on, you got to help me with the dishes,” because your goal invariably is to build a relationship so that you can help kids manage behavior, that process. I think we have a question.

Carolyn Jones: Yes, we do. We have a question from Spanaway: “This is a five-year-old child that has been in placement for almost a year, physically challenged as well as with fetal alcohol syndrome, is not able to use her large muscles to physically get rid of the anger that you spoke of so she has an emotional meltdown. Is there a strategy that foster parents could use—this occurs mostly at night and at this time of the year when it’s light late.” What can she do to help her little one calm down?

Gary Benton: Oh, that is so hard, especially for a child who’s going to be struggling physically, that’s just a very difficult thing. One of the things that I would encourage you to do is if she can’t use large muscles—which is I’m assuming that that means that she’s not going to be good at moving with her thighs, running, walking, kinds of things—you might consider small muscles, some of the things with her hands if she can grip or do those kinds of things. I certainly have seen lots of kids where parents have filled up—I don’t if you’ve ever done this is, it’s great fun—but you take a balloon, and the biggest balloon you can find actually because they don’t expand, and you fill it with rice and you stuff it nice and full and tie it all off. And you want to probably about triple balloon because especially five-year-olds are going to tend to chew on them. Then the reason we use rice is because it’s the easiest thing to vacuum up, in case you’re curious. But it’s something to squeeze, and for some kids that all that helps them to figure out okay they can kind of calm themselves some with that. The second thing I would suggest though, and the emotional brain will respond to this, is that you use a lot of touch.  Now you don’t…You want to be wise about—I don’t know her, obviously, and she may be touch sensitive, but you want to stay on the upper part of the body. You never touch never touch from the neck up, never from the waist down, but on the upper part of the body, if you can start doing back rubs, some of those kinds of things. Now, she may respond—what we would consider abnormally—to that early, but I would encourage you to stay with that because we have found that sometimes that helps. And I worked with a teacher who had worked with a very difficult acting out little girl and what she found it worked for touch—you might consider this too— is she gave her a little tube of hand lotion, and she walked up this little girl one day, and she could never bond with this little girl, she walked up and said, “You know, my hands are really dry, would you mind putting lotion on my hands?” and that was the beginning of the relationship for them. And this little girl kept the tube, the teacher said by the end of school year she had the softest hands. But you need to think about what you can do to increase touch which increases emotional bonding, which is very important. And then also to do is some of that that muscle stuff.

But I also think that, you know, think about the bedtime stuff. And we talked about structure and I know how important that is and I know these kids get tired but if darkness is an issue then maybe you have to have some variability around the summer-winter kinds of things, you know, that’s going to make your life a little bit harder because it’s going to get longer, or you might consider getting you know doing what you can to get the room to be real quiet and dark. But I would imagine for her that over the long haul your relationship with her is going to drive it. You’ve had her for a year which is a huge testament to you and to your commitment to her. So those are the some of the suggestions I would have.

All right, let me give you a couple quick things to think about for yourself and then we’ll come to the end. The first is you have to honor all three brains. In order to be successful with these difficult kids and in this difficult kind of a setting, this difficult— really calling, I suppose— is probably the best thing make sure that you take care of yourself with all three brains as well that you do things, that you have routine and predictability in your life, that you have emotional support, and certainly, you need friends and other family members or others folks who are doing foster care work, that kind of thing. And then the final thing is make sure that you’re taking care of your thinking brain, that you’re doing something new. This brain is the—if you’ve ever come to the end of a day or the end of a holiday or anything you had the “is that all there is” experience, “is that all there is” kind of syndrome. I would certainly encourage you to realize that that’s probably your thinking brain saying “Well goodness, we’ve done what we always have done we’ve hung out with the people we’ve always hung out with but we haven’t tried anything new.” And this is really a critical piece, really important piece of your life as a foster parent is that you become a critical and creative thinker, and that means you have to take care of yourself in that process. So we take a look at this in terms of defusing kids. This model is probably the simplest, and invariably, the more difficult the child the more important it is to work first with a survival brain, then the emotional, and then finally the thinking brain. So the more difficult the child, the more structure you want to build into that particular child’s life.

Carolyn Jones: “What do I do when my teenager gets in my face? I find that I am afraid of him. He comes from a family with a great deal of domestic violence. How can I handle this?

Gary Benton: That’s first of all it’s very difficult, and you want to be very wise. A teenager, particularly teenage boy, but teenage girl too, can be dangerous and you can get hurt. And I would encourage you to be very careful about fear. If you find yourself afraid, there’s a reason for it, you’re picking something up. And the one of the suggestions I invariably suggest is make sure another party gets involved with you.Now, if you don’t want to lose the relationship, in other words, if your goal is to sort through this and hang on to the child, then I would certainly say that you need to take a time—okay, first of all, when the child is upset and in your face, there’s no reason to get into a confrontation, you don’t need to win, you’re the parent, you’re going to be in control of it, at that moment you say “Okay, fine, if we’re going to go down that road I don’t want to go,” and you step away, I think that’s just fine. But you can’t let it go, you have to come back to it when that child is calm.

The first thing I would suggest is take that kid out and feed them and while they’re eating then talk to them about what happened, what the effect of the behavior was on you personally “When you do this, I feel.” And the second thing is there has to be a consequence for that, you can’t ever let it go because that child is challenging your authority, which is important in the family, and also if your authority is damaged then that child isn’t going to be safe and then you’ll get a lot of acting out behaviors. So, you have to step back— you know, you have time and you don’t need to be crazy about that, but at some point you have to also be proactive and say, “Look, next time that happens this is what’s going to happen,” or “now that you’ve done it, this is the consequence,” but you want to do it when everybody’s calm, fed, not tired, those kinds of things.