Are you parenting a child who has had trauma?
Are you parenting a child who has a capital letter syndrome — such as ADD, ADHD, FAS, SPD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder — or another special need?
If so, then this is for you!
When it comes to parenting kids who have had trauma, I struggle with imposter syndrome. I often ask myself, “How can I help other parents when I couldn’t do it perfectly or even well myself sometimes?”
We must let go of the myth that perfect parents exist. They don’t. And raising kids who have had trauma means a huge learning curve for us parents — especially if we have parented our bio children okayish with great results.
Why Traditional Parenting Doesn’t Work
Traditional parenting is for securely attached children — kids who want to please. Any sort of parenting requires a foundation of connection with the child. That connection comes more easily with kids who haven’t experienced trauma. For those who have, the foundation is absent or shaky, and as a result, the child feels no need to follow commands or listen.
Traditional parenting tends to swoop in and fix the immediate problematic behavior. It is a short-term approach that doesn’t work with kids who have trauma. Instead, you need to take the time to consider the need behind the child’s behavior and focus on the ultimate goal of connection.
Kids who have trauma care more about control and survival. When a child has a disorganized attachment style born out of trauma, he will want to control his surroundings. Control will trump following instructions every time. In fact, the very thing that would make him feel more connected, he will fight.
As the authors of The Connected Child explain, “Children who encountered deprivation or harm before they were brought home lack many types of connections. They can lack social connections, emotional connections, neurochemical connections, cognitive connections, and sensory connections.” Because these connections do not exist, traditional parenting will not work. We must change our parenting to adjust to the fact that it will be different with these kiddos.
With that in mind, here are eight “instead of” parenting suggestions for kids who have experienced trauma:
1. Instead of a Lecture, Use Simple Language
Many of us grew up with the lecture approach to parenting. For every infraction, Mom or Dad had a carefully selected and time-tested sermon they could pull from a database in the recesses of their mind. “If your great aunt Mary knew that you turned on a show in the middle of the night, [insert stories of monsters, bible verses, sticks in the eye, etc.].” You get the picture.
After a while, all our brains heard was the sound of a grown-up talking on Charlie Brown: “Wah, wah, wah, wah.” No matter how eloquent you are, your child may only hear the first 8 to 12 words. If you waste those first words, you have lost them. And long lectures aren’t the best way to get your child to listen and learn anyway.
Choose and use your words carefully. Aim them at the behavior, not the child — and there’s no need to bring other family members or what your parents would have done into it. Try instructions like these:
“Walk, don’t run.”
“We don’t hit.”
“Use your words.”
“Try that again.”
2. Instead of Waiting for Behavior to Intensify, Respond Quickly
We’ve all done it. We see the precursor to a meltdown or a potential fight brewing over a toy, but we wait. We wait because it isn’t that bad yet or hasn’t gotten violent. Next thing you know, the situation is out of control.
Sometimes it helps to stop and ask yourself: Why wait? Would you rather spend five minutes addressing the behavior and reconnecting now, or spend the next two hours living with the fallout? It’s a pretty simple choice in my mind. I’ve learned from experience how draining the two-hour or day-long fallout of a complete meltdown can be. As a result, I lean toward addressing an issue while it is a tiny seed instead of waiting until it grows into a giant oak tree.
Recently, my daughter and I were on our way to the zoo with her kiddo. We were meeting her sister and her kiddos for a day of fun (four grandkids + zoo = fun). As usual, we talked about our trips together when she was growing up — zoo trips, field trips, vacations.
My grandson had been watching a show on the iPad while we talked, but it ended. “I can start a new one,” I offered. We had been hoping he would fall asleep during the first one, but no go.
“Are you sure you can get back there?” my daughter asked.
“Remember who you are talking to,” I reminded.
“Nevermind,” she said, and laughed. “You used to climb back and sit with us to get us to calm down.”
“Yep, I did.”
Some super safety-conscious parents are shaking your heads right now in disbelief. Yep, I crawled over seats and sat on the floor of the suburban to calm kids down or interrupt a fight before the trip turned into a giant meltdown.
3. Instead of Giving Orders, Offer Simple Choices
When I was a young and naive parent, I thought I needed to have control all the time. There were no choices. My first child blew that theory out of the water. She was very much an “I can do it myself” child. If I didn’t offer her choices, she offered them to me. I got a lot of flack from family members for not being more strict, harsh, or punitive with her.
The funny thing is, I was judged for being too strict with my kids with trauma just a few short years later. That’s another story for another time.
The point is, Audrey taught me the value of giving choices. I’m not talking about moral choices. I mean giving kids simple choices like:
Do you want to wear black tennis shoes or purple?
Do you want a peanut butter sandwich or a ham sandwich?
Do you want to read this book first or that one?
Do you want to give Uncle Bob a hug or not?
4. Instead of Just Correcting, Give Immediate Retraining and a “Re-Do”
A re-do is simple. Remember when you missed five on your spelling test and your teacher had to write the ones you missed each five times? Or when you were in gym class and missed the basketball hoop on the first shot but kept trying until you made it? Or when you got married and were trying out your cooking skills for the first time and something didn’t taste just right, so you called Mom and with her help tried again? Those are all re-do’s.
As the Empowered to Connect training manual explains, “Offering your child a chance to “try it again” and get it right — what we call a re-do — is often an ideal way to respond. In addition, this approach provides your child with body memory for doing the right thing and offers an opportunity for you to then give praise and encouragement once she re-does the task, follows the instructions, or interacts in an appropriate manner. This approach can help your child to experience doing the right thing and deepen your connection with her as well.”
Practice Outside of the Moment
When teens or adults start a new job, they go through training. Usually, this training is practiced outside the moment. Training is not introduced when an employee is melting down over not knowing how to use the computer system (although that can happen). Practicing outside the moment allows you to teach a child when his upstairs brain is activated, instead of waiting until he flips his lid.
The authors of The Whole-Brain Child explain the concept of your upstairs vs downstairs brain: “Imagine that your brain is a house, with both a downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose. Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like flight and fight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).”
The downstairs brain is survival mode. No logic or reasoning is applied — just illogical, knee-jerk responses. When a child gets stuck in their downstairs brain, his body shoots cortisol through his system, and he lives on the edge. A simple request sounds like YELLING. IN FACT, EVERYTHING IS AMPLIFIED. A CAR THAT PASSES THROUGH THE NEIGHBORHOOD IS A THREAT. A COMPLIMENT IS TWISTED INTO A CORRECTION.
You get the point. Scary, huh? It’s no fun to live there.
I did lots of practicing outside the moment with my kiddos before we went somewhere. My funniest story using this tool is practicing to go to the library. My newbies had recently come home from Poland, so I had kiddos aged 12, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, and 1. Four of them had never been to a public library before, so we practiced at home. We pretended the bookshelves were the library. I showed them how to get a book, whisper, sit down at a table, and look at the book they had retrieved.
Our town had a small library with an unusual practice. When you got a book out, you replaced it with a ruler to mark your place in order to return it if you didn’t check it out. My kids loved this practice a little more than I realized. When we got to the library, they used all of the rulers to mark places and got a giant stack of books — which ties in nicely with my next point.
5. Instead of Expecting a Child to Know, Clarify Expectations
Traditional parenting often relies on assumptions. We assume that the child should know how to behave in an environment or know what to expect. We say things like, “You should know better” or “Be quiet! This is a library,” as if a child who has never been to a library would know that information. Just like my kiddos didn’t recognize the implied rule that you should only get one book out at a time.
You can practice outside the moment for about anything:
Going to a restaurant.
Going to a ball game.
Flying on a plane.
Visiting a friend’s house.
Not only does this help your child know what to expect, but it also alleviates fears. Many kids need to know what’s next, and if you have informed them and practiced with them, it will be a smoother ride for both of you.
6. Instead of Isolating When a Child is Dysregulated, Keep the Child Near You
One of the popular parenting tools frequently used is time out. As the authors of The Connected Child explain, “These isolating strategies may be useful for biological children who are already connected and emotionally bonded to their families. But isolating and banishing strategies are extremely problematic for at-risk children because these kids are already disconnected from relationships, attachment-challenged, and mildly dissociative because of their early histories of neglect and abuse. Isolation is not therapeutic for them.”
Instead of isolating, keep the child near you so that you can co-regulate for them. Your presence as a calm center can help them become calm down more quickly.
While a traditional time-out may not be a good idea, you can still have a “calming corner” in a public room (such as the family room or kitchen) with a pillow and a few toys for toddlers. This is a think-it-over place and can become more sophisticated as the child gets older. You can say, “Sit here and think it over. When you’re ready to talk, let me know.”
Just a caution — your child will not turn into Pollyanna just because you created a think-it-over space. When the child is ready to talk it over, he may say “ready” with the voice of a Balrog. That’s okay. Meet him where he is. Let him tell you in his own words what he did wrong, and if he doesn’t know, give him the words. Lead him through an apology or a redo or both. Make sure you finish connected. Then it’s done.
And when it’s over, it's over. Don’t keep bringing it up. Saying things like, “Earlier today, you did that thing so I don’t trust you” or “You couldn’t handle yourself earlier, so never again” or any other broad statement makes the child feel less-than. If you know a child can’t handle participating in whatever brought on the meltdown, keep that to yourself and parent. Arrange the environment to give him something else to do.
For example, if the child has had too much screen time and it caused the meltdown, play a board game together (even if you don’t want to). You are investing in your child.
7. Instead of Only Noticing the “Bad” Behaviors, Offer Praise for Success
When parenting a child from a hard place — i.e. one who has had trauma — it’s easy to get into a pattern of only noticing “bad” behaviors. Because the child already believes he is worthless or of little value, harping on the negative only solidifies his belief.
When my newbies first came “home,” they were in a state of disorganized attachment. At times, I felt as if my home would never stop feeling chaotic. My kiddos had a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, and finding something praiseworthy was difficult in those beginning stages of “family.”
Instead of waiting for my kiddos’ behavior to rise up the bar I had set before I offered praise, I set my sights on something other than measuring up. I began by praising them for playing with Play-Doh, creating something with LEGOs, putting on a puppet show, eating food — pretty much anything I could praise. The kids sometimes bristled at the praise. They may have wondered what my motive was, but eventually they began to accept it and even expect it. “Mom, look what I built!” This is connection.
Imagine if you never received any praise at all. Imagine if your life was just a fight to survive, and everything you did was wrong. You couldn’t sit right, eat right, speak right, or behave right in general, and people pointed those things out constantly. How would you feel? How would you feel if suddenly you started receiving some praise for things? Wouldn’t you keep doing the things you received praise for?
8. Instead of Taking It Personally, Remember There Is a Need Behind the Behavior
When we look at behaviors as needs, we are less likely to take them personally. For instance, when we remind ourselves that the child can’t regulate — not won’t regulate — we can set our personal feelings aside. When we set our personal feelings aside, we can take the reins and parent. It’s not us against them; we’re all on the same team.
So before taking a behavior personally, ask yourself what the child needs. Is the child. . .
In his downstairs brain?
Unsure of the expectations?
Unable to adjust to a change of plans?
It’s our job to be the emotionally stable person in the relationship. In an article for PBS, Katie Hurley explains one thing you can do to help your child become aware of their emotions: “Express your own emotions. Parents have a tendency to hide their own emotions from their kids. While kids don’t need to be involved in the fine points of adult problems, it’s okay for them to see you sad, mad or overwhelmed. When you label and talk about your own emotions, you show them that we all have big feelings to cope with and that you trust them just as they can trust you.”
Two of my kiddos struggled with recognizing emotions in themselves and others. I made flash cards with different expressions on them: happy, sad, angry, afraid, frustrated. We practiced recognizing emotions with a mirror and with the cards.
Sometimes, the things we take so personally are emotions the child isn’t equipped to express. In that sort of situation, the child often reverts to anger — the go-to for kids in survival mode.
Using the IDEAL Approach
For all interactions with your kiddos, use the IDEAL response as a guide. The IDEAL Approach is among the best tools for parenting, teaching, or supervising kids who have had trauma:
I: You respond immediately, within three seconds of misbehavior.
D: You respond directly to the child by making eye contact. Get down on their level.
E: The response is efficient and measured. Use as few words as possible.
A: The response is action-based. Lead the child through a re-do.
L: Your response should be leveled at the behavior, not the child.
One final note: The suggestions in this article are simply tools for parenting. Not every tool is useful in every situation or with every child. You must find which work for your child. In extreme cases, a child may be so violent that he is a danger to himself and others in the home. In that case, you need to get professional help. Don’t try to go it alone.
Often, getting help starts with a visit your pediatrician, who can refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist for evaluation. From there, you may move on to counseling, therapy, or whatever is recommended. A great local resource is Beacon Barn, which offers individual and family psychotherapy for children as young as 3 years old, adolescents, and adults to address issues such as depression, anxiety, separation/divorce, attachment issues in children, foster care/adoption, self-esteem issues, behavioral problems, trauma, and grief.
About the Author: Kathleen Guire is a certified Empowered to Connect Parent Trainer and author of Positive Adoption. She is also the primary writer behind The Whole House. You can read her full bio here.