I was invited to speak at the Florida Foster and Adoptive Parent Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida in June. It is always a special privilege to share with families who are in the trenches. I love meeting them, hearing their stories, and being able to share information and experiences that can help them on their journey of hope and healing. I find it easy to be vulnerable with like minded people. I feel like I want to open up to them, honestly, it’s very therapeutic. Perhaps that is what I ultimately like about having the opportunity to speak at events like this one.
But this isn’t about my time in Orlando at the conference. No, this is about my flight home.
The pilot made two announcements before we left the gate; “Our flight is completely full today” and “It’s probably going to be bumpy as we climb out.” I assume that both of those announcements are made on every flight leaving Orlando in the month of June. It is where Mickey Mouse lives after all and afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence in central Florida.
Soon after that we left the gate and started our journey home. We spent the first fifteen minutes in the air either turning left or right. At no point did it seem like we were flying in a straight line until we were above the clouds because the pilot was navigating the rough air so that we didn’t have to experience the turbulence. He was cutting a path between the clouds to give us the smoothest ride possible. The climb out of Orlando reminded me that someone who is gifted and skilled can masterfully navigate the skies and avoid the turbulent air.
The first 15 minutes of that flight got me thinking that being a parent is a lot like being a pilot. They are both leadership exercises.
They are both leadership exercises because:
- You have to be equipped to do your job
- You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”
- You have to navigate the turbulent air
You have to be equipped to do your job
Our pilot didn’t just climb into the cockpit and fly the plane one day. He is a highly trained and experienced person. He did the work necessary to do his job well. He made the investment in himself (and by extension in all of us sitting behind him) to do his job with the skill required.
But training by itself is not enough. He needed the right kind of training. Pilots need to be trained in the principles of flight. Not just flying a plane.
Parents who are raising children with trauma histories need to be trained in trauma. They need to understand the risk factors that make a hard place. They need to understand how that trauma impacts the brain, body, biology, beliefs, and behavior of their child. They need to understand how their kids respond to fear. Understanding these things is vital to your ability to navigate the skies.
We all accept that athletes need a coach and they need to practice so that they can be at their best. Yet, many parents are reluctant to accept that they need a coach or need to practice to be at their best. I doubt that many (if any) of them would fly on an airplane piloted by someone who is neither trained nor experienced.
You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”
Pilot or parent, like it or not, you are responsible for everyone on your airplane. That’s what you signed up for. We cannot expect our children to have the tools necessary to self-regulate, take responsibility for their actions, or repair their mistakes. We have to show them how. We have to lead them on their healing journey. We have to model these things for them. Dr. Purvis used to say that unless you taught your child how to do something, you should assume that they don’t know how to do it.
As parents, we know that we are responsible for our families, but that responsibility extends way beyond food, shelter, and clothing. We are responsible for their emotional development and relational healing. Adoptive and foster parents have to heal wounds we didn’t inflict and redeem ground we didn’t lose. This is a foundational reality that we have to embrace about parenting kids with trauma histories. This is how we take responsibility for those behind us on our airplane.
You have to navigate the turbulent air
This means two things. We need to find a way to avoid the turbulent air if we can, and since that isn’t always possible, we need to know how to navigate safely back to smooth air when we find ourselves in turbulent air.
I would suggest that there are two ways to do that. One is to be equipped for the journey by getting that training we need in order to understand our kid’s histories. The second way is to become the world’s leading experts in our children. Since being equipped was addressed earlier I won’t repeat it here, I’ll focus on becoming an expert on who your child is.
I can’t overstate this point, we need to know who our kids are in order to be the agents of healing they need us to be. We need to know their triggers, their hurts, and their hangups. We need to know how much sleep they need, how frequently they need nutrition and hydration. We need to know their allergies and their reactions to foods and stressors. We need to know what helps them regulate and what we need to do to re-integrate their upstairs and downstairs brains. We can’t navigate the turbulent air if we don’t know these things.
It’s a matter of trust
The pilot made another announcement about 90 minutes into the flight; “Folks, I’m going to turn the seat belt sign on again as it’s getting bumpy, but don’t worry we’ll do our best to find some smooth air for you.” I had no anxiety when he made that announcement. I had complete faith that he would do what he said because he had proven that he could find the smooth air when we started the journey. He had already demonstrated his ability to navigate the skies. That’s how trust is established, you prove that you are up to the task. You lead those you are responsible for to a better place. You show your kids how when they don’t know how. We can’t always avoid the turbulence, but we can do our best to find the smooth air. We have to, our kids are depending on us.
Just in case you were wondering, the seat belt sign was turned off 20 minutes later when we found ourselves back in the clean air.
This post first appeared on Ryan’ blog in June 2017.