I looked over and he was asleep on the floor, his arm wrapped around a teddy bear.
Watching Michael* sleep, I began to cry. Finally, a breakthrough, I thought. Finally, Michael felt safe.
This summer, Holt-Sunny Ridge offered our first TBRI®-based adoptive family camp for children who are coping with trauma and loss. Ten children ages 7-11, including 8-year-old Michael, joined their adoptive parents for this therapeutic day camp held at The Ranch of Hope Reins in Hampshire, Illinois. Over three days, the adoptive parents learned parenting tools, techniques and strategies uniquely designed to help parents of children who “come from hard places.” At camp, the children also learned, in a fun and creative way, numerous coping skills and strategies to use when they are feeling upset.
For many of the children, this camp had an immediate impact visible to all of us. Over the three days, our camp staff witnessed breakthrough after breakthrough as the children gained tools to help them cope with their emotions — and relax in an unfamiliar environment.
The camp staff provided a structured yet nurturing environment and, in turn, the kids felt safe, accepted and empowered. We assigned each child a one-on-one buddy who stuck with them throughout the day and helped remind them of the rules for camp: “Stick Together, No Hurts and Have Fun.”
I’ve been trying to figure out how to put into words what happened that weekend. When I first traveled to Texas in 2014 to be trained in TBRI, it was life changing. So much so that two years later, I went back to learn how to run one of the camps that they use for much of their research and evidence in this highly successful parenting intervention. We started planning our camp in 2016, but there was definitely something bigger going on here in regards to how all of this came together.
We met the owners and director of Hope Reins in April of 2016 and an automatic connection was made. It was Kristine Pienkowski‘s lifelong dream as a former foster child to have her beautiful ranch opened up to welcome in kids much like herself. She has worked with horses most of her life. Debbie Kresser Hirschberg made up the other half of this amazing duo with her clinical skills and EAGALA training. The other Hope Reins staff and equine specialists added their calm demeanors and expertise.
The camp activities were structured similar to the camps that Texas Christian University’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development Hope Connection® offered during their research and development of Trust-Based Relational Intervention. TBRI® educates parents and professionals on the effects of trauma. Pre-natal risks, difficult labor and delivery, abuse, neglect and medical risks can all impact brain development. Children tend to operate in the fight, flight or freeze part of their brain once impacted and these behaviors can look frightening to anyone who hasn’t been educated on trauma.
When we learned more about horses and Eagala, we knew that these two therapeutic interventions belonged together. To evade predators, horses have learned to be extremely sensitive to their environment. They instinctively react to our body language and other nonverbal cues. As a result, we are able to gain insight into our own nonverbal communication and behavior patterns. The Eagala model invites clients into an arena for ground-based interaction with horses to facilitate the therapeutic process with no riding involved. The horses become the focal point in teaching us about ourselves and ways we can grow in relationships.
If horses can pick up on our body language and non-verbal cues, children most certainly can sense when their parents are anxious, angry, triggered or dysregulated. During our camp, the horses would comply with the activities if they felt at ease with the parents and the children. One child was very excited about working with the horses and ran up to one of them, causing the horse to back up and “neigh” at him. She was letting him know that she wasn’t comfortable with his approach. Debra helped the child take a few deep breaths and encouraged him to approach in a calm manner the next time. The parents and children also participated in an activity together with the horses. They had to work together to lead the horses from one location to the next. Several times, the horses weren’t moving or cooperating because the family wasn’t communicating clearly or working as a team.
In other activities, the children learned how to identify and recognize what their body needed. We used the Alert® programs — “How’s Your Engine Running?” — to teach them to recognize when their body is running too high or too low and then equipped them with coping skills to help regulate their energy. They were reminded to “ask, not tell” on a consistent basis and were given opportunities for re-do’s when they were not being respectful by gently asking them to “try again with respect.” We provided regulating tools for the children such as weighted blankets and stuffed animals, an abundance of bubble gum, stress balls, and taught them to push on a wall or do a magic mustache — apply pressure above the lip with their finger — to help themselves regulate. The buddies encouraged, assisted and played with their assigned kids and they also listened to them, walked with them and helped them regulate when their little bodies just couldn’t do it themselves.
The participating parents felt supported and encouraged in an environment with others who were walking a similar path. They were able to participate in a family nurture group where they connected with their kids through play, and give/receive care to one another. The parents walked away from camp with concrete techniques and strategies to assist them in correcting their children’s behavior, but also learned how important it is to identify what might be beneath the behavior.
It’s a good sign when kids don’t want to leave. They all enjoyed camp and reported having fun. Most importantly, we saw connections strengthen and healing take place within each family.
Because of the success of this pilot program, we are excited to offer this again in 2018 – dates to be determined. In the future, Holt International is hoping to replicate these camps across the country.
Here are some pictures that captured the healing that took place at the Journey of Hope adoptive family camp:
* name changed to protect the child’s identity