What I Learned from Dr. Karyn Purvis about Caring for At-Risk Children

Dr. Karyn Purvis spoke at the A Future and A Hope conference last week. AFAH is an adoption and foster care annual conference in Austin, Texas that focuses on different adoption processes, foster care, and raising foster or adopted children.

Photo by Matt Kouri

Courtesy of Matt Kouri

Dr. Purvis already commands attention because of her passion, experience and research. Her love for children from a “hard place” manifested powerfully as her friend and co-author, David Cross, helped her onto stage.

Dr. Purvis honored her commitment to speak at this conference even though she received a chemo treatment just a couple of days before. Yes, she is battling a recurrence of cancer.

Even though a chair sat on stage for her to sit in as she spoke, the conviction she carries would not allow her to sit.

I imagine she felt completely spent after her 45 minute talk which throughout she implored the conference attendees to consider the origin of their call to adopt or foster at-risk children, shared insight from her research into brain chemistry, and offered practical solutions in raising our children.

Even though I will never be able to translate to you the emotion of the moment, I hope to share some of the nuggets I gleaned from Dr. Purvis’ talk.

Not all are called to foster or adopt, but all are called to the ministry to the vulnerable.

The vulnerable includes children who come from broken homes.

A person needs to be sure about the call to foster or adopt. Often those with a history of abuse or unresolved pain end up fostering or adopting. The challenge is when the vulnerable child in their care acts out, it triggers an over-response from the caretaker.

If you have any of these in your history, please do some healing work:

  • Abortion – if you are fostering or adopting because of guilt over an abortion, that child has no chance of replacing the one you lost. They will not understand or “appreciate” your effort to “rescue” them.
  • Legalism – if you come from an environment that emphasizes law and obedience absent of grace and nurture, you will struggle with a child from a hard place. Yes, that child needs structure, but they need a huge dose of nurture so they feel safe enough to accept proper discipline.
  • Obligation – if you are responding to an all-call to adopt  “if you love Jesus, you should adopt a child”, you are setting yourself up for failure.

To answer the call to care for the vulnerable, many need to consider stepping into a support role.

We don’t please God by answering the call of another. Dr. Karyn Purvis

The executive part of the brain takes about 20 years to develop

However, if trauma is involved, the completely developed at birth primal emotional reactionary part of the brain called the amygdala will not allow the executive part of the brain to develop appropriately.

Why? If the child lives in a constant state of fear, cortisol floods the system in effect crimping the flow of necessary neurotransmitters to the executive part of the brain.

As a result, the child isn’t able to self-regulate, communicate rationally, and so on. No wonder they aren’t able to focus on learning social skills, subjects in school, etc. They are in survival mode.

How to shut down the constant firing of the amygdala

Learn to speak the language of safety. Our children need to feel safe. This is different from knowing they are safe.

  • I see you
  • I hear you
  • I understand you

When we give the child a voice, we begin to quiet their sense of fear. It’s not that we don’t give structure.

Instead we say, “I am listening to you, but you need to use good words, so I can hear you.”

How you are talking to me or acting is not ok. That is structure.

But this is how you can talk to me and act towards me so I can hear you. That is nurture.

The kids bled before they came to us. They must not bleed on our watch.Dr. Karyn Purvis

I hope to expound on some of this over the next few weeks. Please let me know if you want explanation on any of this!

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I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “What I Learned from Dr. Karyn Purvis about Caring for At-Risk Children

  1. Good words to share. I see in them, not only application to adoptive/foster children, but to parental interaction with all children. I see in much of what you write not only what you and others must deal with and how to approach situations, but lessons applicable to me in dealing with my own daughter. Your ministry and writing may be considered adoptive/foster children, but you are ministering to and impacting all parents who take what you write to heart. What you and so many others like you have done is answer a call that many ignore. My respect is there for each of you, my prayers for both parents and the child(ren) and admiration. Bless you and your family, my friend.