Holt’s third annual family camp brought together adoptees and their parents for three full days of fun activities — plus TBRI® training and equine-assisted therapy!
Building a strong connection is at the heart of every relationship — including the one between parents and their children. This past summer, six families along with their nine children attended Holt’s Journey of Hope Adoptive Family Camp, held at The Ranch of Hope Reins in Hampshire, Illinois. Their goal was not only to have fun, but also to strengthen their connection with one another. Each of the children, ranging from 7 to 13 years of age, had been adopted through foster care.
Over three days, families participated in activities designed around the Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI) parenting curriculum, developed by child psychologists Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross at Texas Christian University. TBRI is an attachment-based, trauma-informed parenting approach designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children, including those who’ve been adopted.
Connecting is the heartbeat of TBRI, and at the heartbeat of what we do at camp.”Pam Shepard, LCSW, director of the Journey of Hope camp
TBRI hinges on the values of respect and cooperation while also being loving and playful. It uses empowering principles to address a child’s physical needs, connecting principles to focus on attachment needs and correcting principles to disarm fear-based behaviors. The intervention is based on years of attachment, sensory processing and neuroscience research, but its main emphasis is on the connection between parent and child.
During the three-day camp, families also participated in more than one hour of equine-assisted therapy per day, working with the nine horses at the 20-acre ranch. Equine-assisted therapy employs a licensed mental health professional and a certified equine specialist to address issues such as behavioral disorders, depression, anxiety and trauma in children or adults. “Our camp is unique in that it combines both of these therapies,” says Pam Shepard, LCSW, supervisor of clinical services at Holt and the director of the Journey of Hope camp. “Because of this, participants can learn and receive live feedback from the professionals and the horses.”
Each day of camp, eight to 10 TBRI practitioners, three equine specialists and five trained equine volunteers led different activities for the group of parents and children. The days were structured around a number of different activities, including:
At the start of camp at 9 a.m., all of the campers — parents and children alike — gathered together for wake-up activities, such as light yoga or stretching. The staff then went over the camp rules: 1. Stick together 2. No hurts 3. Have fun.
Afterward, each child was paired with a “buddy,” typically a graduate student in child development at Texas Christian University who is familiar with the principles of TBRI. The child and their buddy spent most of the day together. But before leaving the group, the buddy facilitated a “transfer of power” from the parent to themself to create a sense of safety and trust for the child. To do so, the buddy might ask the parent, “Is it okay if I give your child a hug during the day if she needs one?” or “Is it okay for me to be the boss of your child during camp?”
After the morning meet-up, parents spent time in a TBRI training session. Over the course of three days, parents received 20 hours of training, which included hands-on strategies, the chance to role play and a discussion of the following principles:
- TBRI is a caregiver-based intervention designed to meet the complex needs of children who have experienced relationship-based trauma, such as institutionalization, multiple foster placements, maltreatment and/or neglect. Because of their histories, it is often difficult for these children to trust the loving adults in their lives, which often results in extreme physical and/or emotional dysregulation. Dysregulation looks different for each child, but some examples might include hitting, kicking, screaming, throwing things, running away or possibly shutting down or withdrawing.
- Children who have experienced trauma have changes in their bodies, brains, behaviors and belief systems. While a variety of parenting strategies may be successful in typical circumstances, children with histories of harm need caregiving that meets their unique needs and addresses the whole child. TBRI offers practical tools for parents to see the whole child in their care and help that child reach their highest potential.
- Children who come from “hard places” have lost their capacity to trust. The brain chemistry of a child who cries and receives no attention, for example, is dramatically altered. A child with a history of trauma, loss or abuse has no hope of healing without a nurturing relationship. By consistently using TBRI techniques, however, parents can learn to effectively connect with a child and build trust and safety. They can actually change the child’s brain chemistry, allowing them to heal. “Connecting is the heartbeat of TBRI, and at the heartbeat of what we do at camp,” says Pam.
Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI)®
Connect with, empower and correct your child using the TBRI parenting approach — designed to meet the complex needs of children who have experienced trauma.
“Crash and Bump” Group
While parents were at TBRI training, their children participated in a variety of fun activities that helped them regulate their emotions and build skills. One of these activities is called “Crash and Bump,” and it allowed children to release energy while engaging in physical tasks. For example, children jumped rope, tossed beanbags, ran up a plastic slide, navigated an obstacle course or rode on a small scooter, using plungers to move forward.
“We know that children benefit from movement and exercise every couple of hours, as this can help stimulate the brain to focus and think more clearly,” says Pam. Children also feel and perform at their best — in other words, they are most empowered — when they are hydrated and not hungry, so frequent snack and water breaks were scheduled throughout the camp day.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Journey of Hope Camp is the segment devoted to equine-assisted therapy. Much like TBRI, the focus of this therapy is on building connections, creating a safe, trusting environment and disarming fear-based behavior. And similar to TBRI, working with horses can be helpful to children who have experienced relationship-based trauma, says Kristine Pienkowski, the executive director of The Ranch of Hope Reins and a certified equine specialist.
Equine-assisted therapy does not require a child to ride a horse, but rather interact with the animal “face to face” in various structured activities. There are several reasons why horses make the perfect therapeutic partner:
- Horses are prey animals, so they are extremely sensitive to their surroundings, often monitoring them to make sure there isn’t a harmful predator nearby. Because of their sensitivity, horses are highly emotionally intelligent beings and able to pick up on the emotions, body language and nonverbal cues of a person or group of people. They are also social herd animals, with distinct attitudes, personalities and moods (just like people)!
- Horses are large, powerful animals who can’t be controlled by aggressive force. Therefore, a child (or adult) must try to regulate their emotions — and ground themselves — before asking a horse to cooperate.
- Horses can provide therapists with “clues” into a child’s behavior. For example, if a child is frustrated, angry, scared or uncertain while engaging with a horse, a therapist can use that experience to talk to the child about their feelings and discuss new ways to deal with them.
- Being in the presence of a horse can lower heart rate and help reduce anxiety. Horses can also provide children with comfort, support and even a healthy challenge when they step outside their comfort zone and enter the horse arena.
During Journey of Hope camp, children and their parents had the opportunity to participate in equine-assisted therapy — both separately and together. The children’s session took place in the morning before lunch. Children assembled into groups of three, and each child had the chance to interact with a horse one on one for about 20 minutes. Children were accompanied by their buddy for support.
One of the equine-assisted activities is called “dress for camp.” During this time, each child was asked to put a hat, scarf or jewelry on a horse, and to monitor (and talk about) their feelings as they did so. Because horses are so sensitive, they pick up on the child’s emotions. For example, if a child was able to take deep breaths, regulate their emotions and become calm before approaching the horse, the animal was likely to allow the child to dress him. If a child was anxious or fearful, the horse might put their head up or pull away and not comply with the child’s wishes.
Children also led horses through a fun and colorful obstacle course as part of the equine-assisted session. Once again, they had to be aware of their emotions — and their behavior — particularly if the horse refused to follow their commands. “What if a child tries to lead a horse by its rein, but it doesn’t want to move forward? Or what if the horse turns its head and pulls away, walking in a different direction?” Kristine says as an example. “How does a child feel about that? How can they change their behavior to build a relationship — or connection — to the horse? These are some of the questions we explore.”
Parents also had the opportunity to participate in equine-assisted therapy — both one on one with a horse, and also together as a unit. In one activity, parents stood on either side of a horse and, holding its reins, tried to lead it through an obstacle course together. Since the horse could be distracted by food or other items, the parents had to communicate and work in tandem to find a solution. Therapists then asked them how they respond to their child when there is a conflict at home and the child refuses to do what they ask. They asked them to explore their own parenting styles, and whether those styles are rooted in their own upbringing. And they taught them new techniques, based on TBRI principles, that will help them connect with their child and deal with resistance in the future.
On the last day of camp, children and their parents came together for one last session with the horses. They engaged in different activities, such as dress for camp or walking the horses through an obstacle course, and discussed with each other how they might handle the task. “The children and their parents approached the activities differently on their own [in a previous session], so when they came together, it brought up questions to look at,” says Kristine. For example, how did each family member’s behavior differ when interacting with their horse? Was the behavior based on past emotional patterns? How did the horses behave in response? What new behavioral possibilities and communication skills did they learn?
After this session was over, the horses were given a treat, and the parents and children had snacks too. “We had a celebration and focused on all the growth and positive things that happened over the three days at camp!” Kristine says.
“Journey of Hope camp is an amazing experience that impacts not only the participants but also the staff and volunteers,” Pam adds. “The parents were asked for feedback after camp, and the overwhelming response was that they wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, everyone asked if they could come back next year. No one wanted their experience to end!”
Support & Education
Holt’s post-adoption team offers short-term counseling and can refer you to mental health resources. We also provide ongoing education for adoptive families and professionals on best practices for parenting adoptees.