Many a good parent has entered the world of foster care and adoption, only to be blindsided by the complete ineffectiveness of many of their go-to parenting tools. They find that the children in their care respond differently than their friend’s kids or even their biological children. This is “difference” is sparked by TRAUMA. Drug exposure, stress, separation, neglect, domestic violence and abuse all affect the brain, especially during the formative years of development. Trauma has taught the body that the world is a scary place. Not being the source of the hurt the children in your care have endured, we assume that they will trust us. But the reality is that on a physiological level, they fear us. Unfortunately, many parenting tools are based on the assumption that children trust adults. For a traumatized child, parents need to take a different approach. Below are a few practical ideas that you use to when caring for a traumatized child:
Assess the need. Before you discipline, look to find out if the child has an unmet need. Feed the need and you may eliminate or lessen the negative behavior. I recently asked a foster child, “Why did you do that? Is there something sad in your heart?” To which she replied, “No, there is something wrong in my tummy.” It turned out, she was just in need of a snack.
Consider Developmental Levels. Parent towards your child’s developmental age rather than their chronological age. Children who have been traumatized, are often delayed in their social and/or emotional development. It’s important that you know the accurate developmental age of the child you are caring for, as you will find yourself less frustrated if your expectations are more “age” appropriate. It’s also important to note that children can often catch up in their development age when they are able to be re-parented through missed stages.
Give Choices. Give your child a sense of control through choice giving. Trying to win control of children who have been victimized often causes them to fight back or shut down. Restrain your desire to control your child and work on empowering them to make good choices.
Natural and Logical Consequences. Increasing predictability for kids will ease their anxiety, so utilize natural or logical consequences when possible. Natural consequences include the negative reactions your child may receive from others when they choose to not brush their teeth or decide to wear the same outfit three days in a row. Rather than having a power struggle over these choices, you allow them to experience the negative reactions of others. For an older child, it might mean letting them miss their ride somewhere when they are not ready on time without bailing them out or fixing the problem. Likewise, logical consequences are ways of matching consequences to behaviors. For instance, if your child chooses to break something when angry, s/he has to repair the item or earn money to pay for it. These types of consequences will make more sense to your child and develop their logic while also helping you to keep consequences appropriate when tempted to overreact.
Use Incentive Systems. When considering chronic behavior problems or times of day where a child struggles, consider implementing a reward system for good behavior. Make sure your system is realistic for your child so that it is a successful experience. The goal is for the child to get attention and reinforcement for positive rather than negative behaviors.
Disengage. Often we unconsciously reinforce children’s behaviors by giving them lots of negative attention. Purposefully ignoring a negative behavior can be a powerful tool. Remember to ignore the behavior not the child. Brains that are calm, hear words and logic better, so practice skills and talk about problems when your child is calm—not when they’re acting out.
Time Ins versus Time Outs. Time for our brains and bodies to relax will help us all make better decisions. While some kids thrive with the limited stimulation of a time out, kids with abandonment/attachment issues may respond poorly to being “sent away.” Try a “time in,” where you are present with the child while they take a break in a designated safe spot.
Keep Calm. Don’t buy into everything your child says. Traumatized kids are master button pushers who expect you to lose emotional control. Practice an even and unruffled manner of implementing consequences. Let the wild comments go without reacting to them. Set limits but do not engage in too much talking during discipline. Remember the truth, all kids want to be loved unconditionally and they thrive with clear, loving limits, regardless of what they are telling you.
Carry On. When I meet with the parents of traumatized kids, they often share how they feel like failures, are ashamed of their own reactions towards their child and how they sometimes just want to give up. Remember, it can get better! Be sure to seek feedback and encouragement. Be open to trying something new. And give yourself breaks and grace so you can stay fresh. The hardest thing in parenting is letting go of having total control over your life and staying away from resentment. So keep moving forward in love. Every. Single. Day. Consistency will do wonders. Pick a reasonable plan of action and remember to run this parenting race like a marathon, not a sprint. Through your consistent care and fair discipline, you are reorienting your child’s very view of the world. Amazingly, as you do the work to keep a soft heart, they are doing the same for you.