How To Parent A Child Who Constantly Fights For Survival.

Author of 5 books, podcaster, parent trainer, husband and father.

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Children who come from trauma are often in a fight for survival, even if they've been in your loving care for some time. It's exhausting and unending at times. How do you successfully parent children who are in a fight while keeping your sanity?

On a mild Monday evening, around 6 pm, I wait expectedly in our kitchen, repeating a series of words over and over to myself. Today is the first day I’ve allowed my son to ride his bike home from football practice. On the stove is a pan of spaghetti and meatballs. In the oven, Texas Toast (our favorite). Dinner is ready. When he gets home, we’ll all sit down and eat. But I know what’s coming. I can hear his words in my head before he even walks through the door… “What’s for dinner?”

In any average household across the country, this question would be commonplace. It’s been asked a trillion times by a trillion teenagers since the beginning of time. Most parents wouldn’t bat an eye at it. But I do. In my household, with my children, “What’s for dinner” has a very deep significance. For my son, it’s a fight. He’s fighting a battle that originates from a memory that is fuzzy and distant, but real. Before he came to live with us, more than a decade ago, he was malnourished and living in a homeless shelter. “What’s for dinner,” is a statement uttered from deep trauma, and perpetual fear. Fear that he is going to starve…fear that he won’t be filled up…fear that he’ll be forced to dwell without a common need.

Often, the fight escalates into a real fight. If one of his siblings takes a portion of spaghetti he deems too big, he begins to yell at us, and blame us, claiming there won’t be enough for everyone else. This happens with more than just food. It happens with clothing, school supplies, deodorant, the blankets on his bed. Deep inside of him there’s a voice telling him, “You’re not going to have enough. Everyone is going to take everything. You need more. Fight, fight, fight.” It’s trauma speaking. It’s his past life whispering thoughts that fill him with fear.

Navigating The Difficult Road.

It’s exhausting isn’t it? If you’re in this trench, you’re probably nodding furiously right now. If you’re like us, you often throw your hands up and wonder… How do I parent a child who’s in a constant fight for survival even if I’ve given them everything they need?

We’ve asked this question over the years of many smart people with lots of great insight into parenting children from trauma. Here’s what we’ve learned to do…

  1. Acknowledge the origin. Remember where your child has come from. Remind yourself, even if it’s a whisper to yourself, that he or she began their life in a dark and desperate place. That’s why they fight. Often, they don’t even know they’re doing it. Once upon a time, they were starving. They saw their birth parents abuse drugs and neglect their child’s needs. They witnessed domestic violence. Maybe sexual assault. They were left in a crack house with nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and a dirty diaper sagging past their knees. Our children’s past is real and it is haunting. Remembering this can help us remain calm but also live with a sense of compassion when our child is fighting us over everything.
  2. Calm and firm. One of the most powerful tools in your parenting arsenal is the ability to remain calm and stay firm with your boundaries. When your child is melting down, freaking out, or locked in a hardcore fight with you, calm and firm wins. The times we’ve lost our cool, and battled back with our children, have only escalated the situation and made things worse (Honestly, this is a battle for us personally). But, we’ve learned that calm is a natural de-escalator. Partnering that with remaining firm on your expectations helps to create an environment of peace. It may take some time, and consistency, to arrive at this place, but you will over time.
  3. Repeat, repeat, repeat. One of our favorite medical experts, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, from NTI Upstream, coaches parents raising children from trauma, specifically FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), to repeat, repeat, repeat when it comes to routine, schedule, and navigating the tricky waters of trauma. Dinner is at this time every day… wake up time for school is at this time every day… after school we do the same thing. Over and over and over. Creating this type of routine and sticking to it will vastly change circumstances with your children. For all accounts, routine is a game-changer when you’re parenting children from trauma.
    Routine is a game-changer when you’re parenting children from trauma.
  4. Let it go. Sometimes you have to ignore the fight, especially if you’ve already calmly explained when dinner will be, or what’s next on the schedule. “I’ve already told you, dinner is in 30 minutes. We are having spaghetti and meatballs with frozen veggies.” If your child persists, let it go. If you’ve already given a clear answer to something they want, and they keep fighting you on it, let it go. Say nothing in response. Silence is golden.

For Your Own Sake.

This is hard. There’s no doubt about it. We often feel so frustrated and overwhelmed, we can hardly think straight. Sometimes, we feel like quitting altogether. Our child has pushed us to the brink of losing it. In those times, we seek out the voice and influence of others on this journey. In my post, earlier this week, I mentioned how I use the front porch of my home to vent, or listen to friends in need. Often, I’m calling my friend, who’s in the same trench, and pouring my frustration and weariness out to him.

We need this. Do the steps I just mentioned above work? Yes. But, let’s be real…sometimes the days of fighting with your child get the best of you and you need a voice of truth to speak into your life. You need an escape. As you and I work hard to love and lead children from traumatic places, we must ask ourselves this: Who am I leaning on to give me strength and encouragement on this difficult journey? We understand the struggle. It’s the very reason we created this blog.

Are you parenting children from traumatic places? Have you experienced the fight? Share your story with us in the comment section below.

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Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.