When Betty Peralta sees a child acting out – whether by screaming, swearing, crying, or hitting – she doesn’t see a bad kid. Instead, Betty sees a child who’s experiencing stress and expressing it the only way their bodies know how.
“Kids scream and cry to get the tension out of their bodies, but it’s distressing to parents, and they can get angry, which makes kids even more freaked out,” says Betty, an adult-child interaction specialist. “But the screaming is good. Love the screaming, because if you are listening and caring while they’re doing it, it is healing your child. To keep your sanity, just wear noise-canceling headphones while you listen.”
For the past seven years, Betty has worked in different capacities at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing and Broadview Shelter and Transitional Housing to help parents better understand the stress in their children’s lives. Once they understand their children’s stress, Betty says, parents can use that knowledge to heal frayed relationships and build stronger ones.
“I have just seen so many amazing improvements with children thanks to Betty.” ~Joyce Y., Broadview Case Manager
Betty has worked most recently as a parenting coach at Solid Ground’s Broadview Shelter, a safe haven for children and their families who’ve survived homelessness and domestic violence (DV). As the only shelter in Seattle dedicated to DV survivors, Broadview provides emergency shelter and transitional housing, along with comprehensive services, for around 320 parents and children each year.
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Betty is a key part of those services. At Broadview, she works to support mothers seeking to heal and strengthen relationships with their children while also recovering from the traumas of both DV and homelessness. Though Betty only works directly with parents, the impact of her work on children can be remarkable.
“I have just seen so many amazing improvements with children thanks to Betty,” says Joyce Y., a housing case manager at Broadview. “People just love Betty – the staff do, the residents do, the kids do. She has so much wisdom, so much knowledge, and brings it down to a practical level so people can relate to it.”
Understanding stress responses
At the heart of Betty’s work is an understanding that unwanted behavior in children is the result of unwanted stress. Instead of reacting to the child’s stress response – whether it’s screaming or refusing to talk – she encourages parents to see through the behavior and understand the stress at its root.
She says parents usually get the concept right away.
“They already know their children are stressed, but they don’t know that their behavior is their way of expressing that stress,” she says. “So when I tell them they don’t have to address the behavior at all, they just have to address the stress, it’s a paradigm shift they can really get behind – because they wish people would do that for them.”
“When I tell them they don’t have to address the behavior at all, they just have to address the stress, it’s a paradigm shift they can really get behind.” ~Betty Peralta, Broadview Parenting Coach
Though the concept is easy to grasp, Betty says the process of learning to act on that knowledge is where the work begins. For parents, part of the work is understanding their own emotions and behavior as responses to their own stress – including the stress caused by their children’s behavior. And at Broadview, Betty works with mothers whose stress includes trauma, fear, and isolation that can come with surviving DV and homelessness.
Betty usually starts her work with parents by listening to them a lot – sometimes for nearly all of their session together – to allow them to drain out the emotions they’ve been holding inside. With those emotions released, she says, parents are better able to reflect and solve problems.
“It’s hard for them to take information in when they have a lot of emotions about things,” she says. “They first need to empty out before they can take anything in, and that’s why a lot of people bang their head up against the wall trying to help people.”
Accepting, not controlling, emotions
But Betty doesn’t teach parents how to control their emotional responses to stress. Instead, she encourages parents to understand and accept their emotions.
“If you try to control your emotions, they’re just going to get stronger,” she says. “When you accept your own emotions, you feel calmer. When you accept your own emotions, it’s easier to accept other people’s emotions, including your kids’.”
One of the most powerful and damaging emotions Betty finds among mothers at Broadview is guilt: guilt about abuse their children may have experienced at the hands of an intimate partner; guilt about not being a good enough parent; guilt that their children have been irreparably harmed. She says parents often express that guilt as anger, which then causes them to feel guilty about their anger.
“The transformation starts with the parent not feeling like they’re doing a horrible job.” ~Betty Peralta, Broadview Parenting Coach
“The transformation starts with the parent not feeling like they’re doing a horrible job,” Betty says. “That’s the main thing. Once parents understand they didn’t mess up their children irreparably, they calm down – and then the children calm down.”
Betty also counsels parents to embrace conflict with their children instead of avoiding it – or feeling guilty about it. In fact, she says, parents should see conflict with their children as an opportunity.
“The important thing is not to avoid ruptures. It’s to repair them when they happen so the relationship becomes stronger and there’s more trust,” she says. “When everything goes well, there’s no opportunity to build trust.”
Learn more about Betty Peralta’s work and approach to child-adult relationships on her website, Alta: Help for Relationships with Children. She offers free 30-minute phone or Zoom consultations to get started.