“Instead of” Tips for Kids With Trauma

Whether you are a teacher, a coach, a parent, or a Sunday School teacher, it’s important to understand that a traditional approach to correction and instruction will not work with kids who have experienced trauma.

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 experienced 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 (one of the books in our list of Resources for Parents) 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 kids.

With that in mind, here are some “instead of” parenting suggestions kids who have experienced trauma. Keep in mind that although these suggestions were originally written for parents, the same principles can be applied to teaching, coaching, and other adult-child interactions:

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. After a while, though, 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.”

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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? The sooner you address a situation, the easier it will be. Don’t wait until both you and the child are losing your cool.

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3. Instead of Giving Orders, Offer Simple Choices

Many of us think that as parents or teachers, we need to have control all the time. But kids — especially kids who have experienced trauma — want to feel in control of their lives, too. Giving kids simple choices whenever possible can satisfy that desire in a safe, positive way so that kids will be less likely to melt down or lash out. For instance:

  • 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?

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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 for help and 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.

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, and kids aren’t likely to remember any instructions you give them when they’re in this state. That’s why practicing ahead of time (or after an incident, once the child has had time to calm down) is so important.

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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 that explains everything.

Instead of assuming a child is intentionally “acting out” or “playing dumb” when they misbehave, take a moment to calmly clarify your expectations. Practice what you want them to do. You can do this for almost anything:

  • Going to a restaurant.

  • Going to a ball game.

  • Flying on a plane.

  • Shopping.

  • Skating.

  • 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.

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6. Instead of Isolating When a Child is Dysregulated, Keep the Child Near You

One of the most popular parenting tools is the time out. However, as the authors of The Connected Child explain, this approach is often counterproductive with kids who have experienced trauma: “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.”

When the child is ready to talk, 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.

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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.

Instead of withholding praise until a child’s behavior meets your standards, go out of your way to find things you can praise. You can praise a child for working hard, being creative, asking a question, eating food — pretty much anything positive. At first, the child may bristle at the praise, wondering what your motives are. Eventually, however, they will begin to accept and even expect it. “Mom, look what I built!” “Teacher, do you want to see my drawing?” 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?

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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. . .

  • Hungry?

  • Tired?

  • Over-stimulated?

  • Triggered?

  • 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.”

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.

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For more information about trauma-informed parenting, check out our list of Resources for Parents. We also have a list of Resources for Teaches and Resources for Churches.