Whether in utero or through the environment, babies and children exposed to substances may exhibit challenging behavior and thought processes for the rest of their lives. Drugs — legal or illegal — can affect impulse control, moods, ability to soothe oneself, organization, memory, social cues, and how to process and express feelings.
“Nobody wants to hear that your child is going to have trouble making and keeping fiends,” said Elizabeth Dunn, M.S., LPC, with Yavapai County Education Services Agency. She spoke to nearly 30 parents, grandparents, nurses, preschool and daycare workers, and equine therapists March 29 at one of Humboldt Unified School District’s free workshops, “Raising Substance-Exposed Children,” at Coyote Springs Elementary School.
Dunn provided background on the effects of substances on the brains of young people, and offered strategies for parents that can help children learn to rewire damaged areas of their brains. It takes these children more time, it takes more practice, and it takes more patience.
TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY
Fresh from a conference on traumatic brain injury, Dunn said the definition of TBI has expanded to include exposure to harmful substances. TBI is something that happens from outside, external to the brain, that causes injury; it is acquired, not genetic.
“The thing that hurts,” Dunn told parents, “is that their ability to connect and relate to us is fundamentally wounded.”
The good news is that the brain never stops developing; it is always learning.
Critical time frames for brain development happen in chunks: 0-3 years, 3-8 years, early- to mid-adolescence. Most of the people in the audience indicated they work with children who were exposed to substances from birth to age 3.
LOVING THESE KIDS
Parents have the capacity to see potential in their children and, thus, must grieve that loss or live with resentment, Dunn said. This sometimes is a lifetime process as milestones pass without being fulfilled. Children, too, need the opportunity to talk about their differences.
If the child is asking questions about differences, he or she is ready for information. Be honest, Dunn said. One way is to explain that when the child was younger, poisons got into his or her brain, and the brain got hurt. “So we have things to help make your brain work,” she suggested.
Other tips included not asking “What’s wrong?” Ask “What happened?” “It’s not what’s wrong with the child, it’s about what happened,” she said.
When others outside the family see a child without any physical distinctions, they are less patient and less compassionate toward a child exhibiting behavior that doesn’t match the age. Someone emotionally challenged in a developed body can display behavior that is confusing, aggravating, and provoking to parents, teachers, administrators, police, and judges.
“This can be awkward and uncomfortable when you’re in a restaurant with an 8-year-old who is crawling under the table and you’re giving directions as if he was a 3-year-old,” Dunn said. “And the gap may get bigger as time goes on.”
To help parents keep their perspective, she said, “Remember, they are wounded, hurting children, and they didn’t do it to themselves.”
EFFECTS OF SUBSTANCE EXPOSURE
As the pleasure centers in the brain are activated — at any age — our brains will continue to seek getting turned on, Dunn said. Consequently, these children are four times more likely to use substances. Because they don’t always respond appropriately and are impulsive, they are four to seven times more likely to be traumatized and abused.
“Our prisons are filled with brain-injured human beings,” she said.
It is dishonest and disingenuous to punish misbehavior without giving expectations up front. Modeling appropriate behavior works better than telling them what to do.
“You hang your coat here, your dirty clothes go here. This is a kind and respectful touch; now you show me,” she said. “If I’m scared, this is what it looks like, and here’s where I feel it. This is my mad face. This is my happy face. When you take out the garbage, this is my happy face.”
One parent asked what to do about lying, which is one of the biggest things that disrupts foster placements. Dunn demonstrated with yellow and blue markers (crayons work best). She drew two lines: the yellow line represents words, the blue line is the body, which always tells the truth. When the child is truthful, the words line up with the body (yellow line with blue directly on top), and the line turns green.
“This is what truth looks like. It’s green,” Dunn said. Some foster children have learned that under all circumstances, they are to keep the yellow (words) and blue (body) separate. It takes practice showing how those lines move closer together, eventually creating green.
A parent of two adopted children, now adults in their early 30s, said she recognized some of the behaviors indicating substance exposure. “This information would have been helpful to have when they were younger,” she said.
Dunn recommended several places to find more help: Brain Injury Alliance Arizona (biaaz.org), Peg Dawson’s book, “Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents,” and Dr. Susan Wolf with the Arizona Department of Education.
Dunn offers a three-part workshop on Parenting Traumatized Children at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays, April 10, 17 and 24, at Lake Valley Elementary School. Feel free to attend the second and third classes. Free child care is available. RSVP to Kelly Lee at 928-759-5109 or email email@example.com.
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