Success Story

Real life power struggles, repair, and relationships through the lens of TFTC

I slid down to my downstairs brain and held on tight to a red ball in that moment.

I have been trained in Together Facing the Challenge for 6 years.  I have used it in my home as a foster parent and in my professional career.  I have trained and coached over 100 families and dozens of staff in the TFTC model.  All of that to say that I still responded to a recent incident with my son poorly.  I slid down to my downstairs brain and held on tight to a red ball in that moment.  I’ll explain-

My 16-year-old son is a swimmer on his high school swim team.  He is in his junior year and has been swimming competitively since 6th grade.  This year for Christmas my husband and I were very excited that we were able to get him a tech suit.  In case you aren’t familiar with swim, I will explain. Competitive swimsuits are not created equal.  A tech suit is a pair of Jammers (tight swim trunks that go almost to the knee) made from special material that resists water.  The material doesn’t soak up water so therefore doesn’t slow down the swimmer.  They are the suits that Olympians wear and the standard tech suit starts at $300.00 dollars (yikes).  Now as you can imagine, the fancy swimsuits also have different degrees of quality, just like any other sporting gear.  I was super excited that I found a great Black Friday deal on one of these fancy tech suits.  (I am a social worker and my husband works in retail- we do fine, but 300.00 dollar swim suits are never in the budget). 

So, Christmas comes, and my son gets his fancy new tech suit.  He was super excited!  He was so joyous and thankful….my momma heart was warmed and feeling very proud that we could do this for him.  It was a few weeks before he had an opportunity to wear his fancy new suit.  Tech suits, or nonuniform suits are only allowed at conference level meets.  The week of the meet came and he wore his suit to practice to make sure it fit right and functions the way it’s supposed to.  Everything was good.

Fast forward to the next day.  My son was in the kitchen making a snack.  He was a bit out of sorts and seemed to be “off”.  I asked if there was anything wrong and he snapped a quick “no”.  Then he walked out of the kitchen, into the living room to inform me that tech suit that I got him is “low quality and we will be lucky if it lasts the season.” 

Please hear me when I say that my reaction caught both of us by surprise.  His statement caused me to reach into my invisible suitcase, grab a red ball, and hold on for dear life.  I slid into my downstairs brain as if I was on a water slide.  My red ball thoughts came flooding in, “nothing I do is good enough, I’m not worthy, I can’t give my kids the life they deserve….and…and….and….” This caused me to respond…. Badly.  I told him that I would return the suit, or maybe just transfer him to different school without a swim team so he wouldn’t have to worry about it.  Of course, he also responded and around and around we went in the conflict cycle. 

Finally, I had the wherewithal to realize what was happening.  I was engaging in this conflict with my sweet boy in a way that I have been intentional to avoid…in a way that I have coached families to be aware of and avoid, and trained my staff to recognize in both themselves and the families they serve, to avoid.  I stopped talking and told my child that I needed a break.  I got in my car and went for a drive. 

Once I was calm, I returned to the situation.  I checked in with my son.  He had also had a chance to calm down.  I apologized.  I told him that I was very sorry for responding that way and that I did not mean the things I said and I hoped he could forgive me.  We hugged and called it a night. 

I share this story as an acknowledgement that we are all a work in progress. I have done a lot of work in the last 6 years to understand my own triggers and prepare myself for when those triggers happen, so I don’t respond from my downstairs brain.  I have done the work to recognize my body cues and take a break or use a coping skill when things “get real”.  This one took me by surprise. After reflecting on the situation through the lens of TFTC, I was able to identify that ungratefulness or entitlement are things that cause me to slide downstairs, pick up that tug of war rope, and engage in the back and forth of a power struggle, like it’s my job.  Now I can be prepared for the next time that this will inevitably come up again.  I know that it’s possible that I will still have hurt feelings when this arises again.  That’s ok.  By doing the work, I will be able to see and understand that I am hurt.  I can use an “I message” or another coping skill so I don’t go to my downstairs brain and respond out of fight or flight- masking my hurt with anger and frustration because those emotions are much less vulnerable and therefore feel safer to express in those moments. 

I also need to acknowledge that the incident I just told you about took place with my biological child.  He knows me and I know him. Our bond is secure, and he knows that even when I respond poorly, I still love him.  He has a thick foundation that my husband and I have helped him build through his whole life.  This incident caused him to fall and may have put a crack in his thick foundation.  But he recovered quickly, and our relationship was pretty quickly repaired.  However, if this same incident occurred with one of our foster kids, the damage to our relationship would have been considerable.  That’s not to say that foster parents are not allowed to make mistakes, but it does need to be named that the relationship repair between a foster or adopted child must be intentional and may take some time.  Our kids from tough places do not have the same thick foundation that our bio kids have.  When those traumatic events happen in their lives- witnessing domestic violence, seeing parental substance abuse, neglect, unmanaged parental mental health, physical or sexual abuse, homelessness, food insecurity, or the countless other things that cause trauma for kids- those events are like a jack hammer to their foundations.  By the time our kids come to us in foster care, likely their foundations look more like a pile of gravel on a construction site.  So, when we as caregivers respond poorly- like humans sometimes do- and our kids fall down- the damage from that incident cuts deeper.  When my son fell on his thick foundation, he may have scratched his knee, but if my foster child fell from that same incident, they wouldn’t have the same foundation supporting them and therefore the hurt would be more significant and severe. 

I share all of this with the hope that foster parents and caregivers can feel seen.  We are all human and even the best intentioned and educated people fall short in responding appropriately at times.  When this happens, it is super important to take time to intentionally rebuild the relationships with our kids. Continue doing the work and getting to know what causes you to slide to your downstairs brain and what red balls you pick up when you’re down there.  Stay curious about yourself and your kids because when we know better, we do better.  

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