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Parenting and the Order of Operations

by | Parenting

Back when I was in high school, I had the most off-the-wall math teacher. Let’s just say he was unique individual who had his own way of approaching life. He also had some very bizarre teaching methods. I well remember the day he introduced the concept of mathematical order of operations. In an attempt to demonstrate the fact that the order in which we do things matters, he spent an entire class period attempting to take of his socks before taking off his shoes. For real. He put a chair on top of one of the tables, climbed up, sat down, and proceeded to tug, pull, twist, bunch, and struggle with that sock for over an hour just to prove a point. He chattered the entire time about how hard this was, about how this method didn’t really make sense, and how there must be an easier way, and what if this wasn’t even the right answer.

Yes, he was eventually successful in his quest. It took a very long time and a whole lot of ridiculous struggle to accomplish the task. His method was inefficient, exhausting for everyone, and made a lot of us want to bang our heads against the wall. Though I’m not a fan of math and still get frustrated with the actual mathematical order of operations, I suppose the fact that I still remember his obnoxious demonstration means the lesson was at least somewhat effective. Let’s be honest, though. Even though he was able to do it, he also cheated. The only way it’s possible to take off your sock before you take off your shoe is to cut the toe portion off the said sock before putting on the shoe…which is exactly what he did.

Order matters when it comes to parenting, too.

Did you know the order in which we do things matters just as much when it comes to parenting tough kids as it does when solving an algebraic equation? Well, it does. This is a tough job. Though there are no “magic bullets” or “quick fixes”, but the order in which we do things makes a huge difference in how quickly (and even if) we arrive at that place of peace and healing we all long for.

Unfortunately, without even realizing it, a lot of us find ourselves up on that table with my crazy math teacher trying to do essentially the same thing my math teacher was doing. No, we’re not literally trying to take our socks off before our shoes, but we do often find ourselves stuck in a struggle with our kids. We’re doing everything we know how to do…tugging, pulling, stretching, twisting, and maybe even ready to chop off a toe or two in order to make things work with our struggling kids. Yet what we often end up with are exhausted parents and kids who aren’t making significant progress.

It’s an easy place for a lot of us parents to end up in. I was up there for a long time myself. I can also promise you from experience that when we get the order right, the whole process goes a lot smoother and real healing really can happen for everyone. Things just naturally fall into place.

So what’s the right order?


1. Get help for the parents first…especially mom!

I will preach this from the rooftops as step #1 until the day I die!  Step #1 is not  getting the kid into therapy. It’s not learning therapeutic parenting. It’s getting help and support in place for the parents! This step is so critical, yet so very often overlooked. Our natural instinct as parents is to seek help for the kids first. After all, that’s what good parents do, right? It’s also quite logical to assume that fixing the kid who is causing all the problems will fix the problems and life can return to normal.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing logical about trauma. Sadly, there are no quick fixes or magic bullets. Trauma leaves lifelong scars and can shatter an entire family if it’s not properly address. Yet, the best shot our kids have at healing is by connecting with and building a real relationship their parents…especially mom (or whoever their primary caregiver is.)

It is critical  that mom has the proper tools, training, and support she needs to do this job. We moms are the ones on the front line. We are the ones that interact with the kids day in and day out. We are the ones who know the kids better than anyone. We are also the ones responsible for holding everything together…and we are also the ones who get the full brunt of all the special stuff our sweeties can dish out. That’s a whole lot of responsibility to place on one person. In fact, it’s a job that is too big to do alone.

2. Change ourselves meet the needs of the child

This is another one that is very frequently overlooked. It’s also one that isn’t popular or easy for parents to do. After all, we’re the adults and the kid is the crazy one who needs to get with the program, right?

It would be nice if it worked that way, but it doesn’t. It’s simply not fair to expect a child who had a rough start in life to come in and conform to the family or be solely responsible for their own healing. They don’t have the skills, know how, or sometimes even cognitive ability to do it on their own. Thanks to the lovely way trauma rewires the brain, they don’t think the same way we to, they don’t see the world the same way we to, and they don’t process information or situations the same way we do. Our job as both adults and parents is to figure out what their real needs are and then change ourselves in order to meet their needs and lead the way in healing.

3. Master the art of therapeutic parenting

Unlike when we first adopted our kids, there are now literally hundreds of resources available for learning therapeutic parenting skills. Those resources are a God-send, too! Most of them are now either free or relatively low cost. If you’ve never heard of therapeutic parenting or haven’t done much with it, check out my resources page. I encourage you to start by checking out the websites I’ve linked to. Many of them offer free training videos to get you started on your journey.

Here’s the tricky thing about therapeutic parenting, though. There are lots of different approaches and options out there. All of them are good. All of them offer great ideas and strategies. Not all of them, however, will work for every child or every situation. It takes a lot of trial, error, patience, and practice to figure out what will and won’t work for your unique child. Furthermore, it’s also likely you’ll need an arsenal of tools available. What worked yesterday may not work again tomorrow and what didn’t work yesterday may be exactly what is needed today. Having options to choose from is a very good thing!

Regardless of which approach you’re using, though, the techniques don’t come naturally to most of us. They truly are learned skills…and they take a lot of emotional and psychological energy on our part to implement. They’re also not easy to get right if your only resources and support are books, a Facebook group, or even an annual conference.

Here’s the other kicker. I also believe the #1 reason we see so many burned out parents and kids who aren’t healing very fast is because parents either don’t know about therapeutic parenting or they are trying to implement it as step #1 instead of step #3. As I’ve mentioned, these are hard skills to learn and they’re hard to keep going, especially if you’re running on empty yourself.  As you seek help and support in learning these skills, look for someone who supports you first and can teach you how to apply the principles and tools to your unique situations and child. Also look for someone who can provide you with proper support and perspective to keep things in check.

4. Find appropriate therapy for the child

Even though the lion’s share of healing happens at home and through relationships, kids will eventually need therapy. There’s no question about that. I wish I’d known what I know today back when we first brought our kids home, though. Not all help is created equal. Just because someone says they know about attachment and trauma doesn’t mean they really do.

As you look for help for your kids, ask a lot of questions. Anyone who works directly with your child needs to specialize in treating complex trauma. They should be well versed in the latest techniques, be able to explain the neuroscience behind them, and be able to share how they plan to treat your child, involve you in the process, and demonstrate the success they’ve had using their methods. A trauma certificate in addition to their college degree is a huge plus.

Good helpers know they aren’t the ones who will ultimately help your child the most. You as a parent are…and they will support you in making that happen. 100% parent involvement in all sessions, especially for kids with RAD, is a must. Parents should never be banished to the waiting room so a child can bond with their therapist. Not only is that practice ineffective, it also opens the door wide open for false allegations of abuse and for the child to snow the therapist.

5. Get help for the whole family

Trauma doesn’t just affect one person. It’s contagious and it can infect an entire family.  If there are marriage issues, sibling issues, or you need help learning to work together and live together, seek help from someone who understands the whole picture, the dynamics that trauma have brought to your family and can help you figure things out. At least from what I’ve observed in my own experience and in working with others, when you master steps #1,2,3, and 4 in the right order and for both parents, this step often takes care of itself.

But that’s scary!

Well, so is algebra. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this equation. Unless you’re a math whiz, this equation probably looks more than a little overwhelming.

Solve for y when x is 2

(2x-2) (y-3)^2  [5/2(y-3) ] = [(10-y)/(y-3)^2 ] (3x-4) (y-3)^2

Guess what, though? The answer is 5.  A measly little 5. What’s even more amazing is that as long as we follow the rules and do things in their proper mathematical order (plug in the known information, then brackets, then parentheses, then multiply or divide, then add or subtract), most of us can probably solve this beastly looking equation in our heads.

Guess what else? It’s been a very long time since I’ve done algebra. I didn’t make this equation up. I asked for help. I also didn’t know how to solve this problem on my own. I had to ask for help on that, too.

Parenting hurt kids works much the same way as solving an algebra problem. I’ve tried to do it all kinds of different ways. By far the best and most effective ways were when I stopped trying to do it on my own, asked for help, and did things in their proper order.

How about you? 

Are you doing things in their proper order? Do you have proper help, support, and training for yourself? How might things change in your home and your life if you followed this pattern and did things in the correct order? Are you brave enough to do it?


I’m Diana....wife, mom to 3 awesome (but also very challenging) kids, and a certified professional parent and family coach. I have a passion for helping hurting parents of extremely challenging kids find their way out of darkness and chaos and learn to live again. Many parents I work with have children affected by developmental trauma and struggle with issues such as RAD, PTSD, OCD, ODD, mood disorders, FASD, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other forms of mental illness. This journey doesn't have to destroy you. I found my way out and would love to help you do the same.

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