Kristin and I both grew up in traditional households with traditional parenting. These techniques were not bad, they were just…traditional. There were rules and restrictions, guidelines and boundaries. If established rules, restrictions, guidelines, and boundaries were crossed, consequences were enforced. No questions asked.
These techniques appear to have worked. We both grew up to be responsible adults who know the difference between right and wrong. We are completely capable of making wise choices and using coping skills when we’re feeling overwhelmed.
Neither of us endured significant trauma as children. And that was the game changer.
When we first became parents, we thought we had a healthy understanding of how to raise children. Early on in our journey as parents, we cared for a few sibling groups through foster care and soon discovered how much we didn’t understand about childhood trauma.
Once, I caught one of the children in our care in a straight-up lie. When I asked her why she lied, she just stared at me. I continued to question her…and question her…and question her. As I was raised, no response meant defiance, and thus, you keep questioning until you get a response. So I did. Her eyes started darting around the room. She wouldn’t look at me. She would open her mouth to speak but nothing came out. I’d love to tell you my heart gave way and I stopped. Not the case. I became more frustrated. Finally I’d had enough and marched her off to her room. The night was over for her. In my mind, she was content with her “bad behavior” and needed a swift consequence—time away from others to “think” about it. For several more years, I parented with this concrete thinking.
I was raised this way, and I would parent this way too! However, I was never starving. I never bounced from foster home to foster home. I never witnessed domestic violence. I never grew up in an orphanage or group home. My mom and dad always took care of me, and more important, they were always there for me. Children who experienced trauma (especially early on in their life) are missing this key element. The result is deep cavernous wounds, unmet needs, and survival living. When I finally realized this, it changed the way I communicated with the children in our care, and how I reacted to their behavior.
I’ve discovered that traditional parenting, the way I was parented, just doesn’t work with children who have experienced trauma. Here are just three of the many reasons this is the case:
- Trauma changes the brain. If your child was drug and alcohol exposed in utero, subject to abuse, malnourished, neglected, or in and out of foster homes, their brain has been altered by this trauma. Their perspective and their behavior are changed. They are thinking, behaving, reacting, and surviving out of loss. You cannot look at your child and ask, “What were you thinking?” Chances are, they don’t know. If you continue to demand an answer or lecture, you cause your child to shut down.
- Their behavior is a voice. For years I thought our the choices, reactions, and attitudes of some of the children we were caring for were because they liked being bad (really though, who actually likes feeling bad!?). I would discipline them according to this belief. One night I stood indignantly in my upstairs bathroom while a child who had been in our care for a little more than a month threw the mother of all tantrums and attempted to tip over a solid-steel claw-foot bathtub. I was furious. I wanted to ground this kid for life. He was traumatizing our other children and causing me to miss out on my night as well.
Yes, he was behaving badly, but it wasn’t because he was a bad kid. His behavior was a voice from his traumatic past. It was an outcry. He was not fighting against me he was expressing an unmet need. When I realized his behavior was actually a voice, I started reacting differently.
- They’ve learned to survive. Because of the trauma your children have experienced, their behavior will often shift from logical and regulated, to erratic and survival-based. Think of it like this: if you are hungry, what do you do? You get something to eat. If you find yourself in a situation that becomes dangerous or life threatening, what do you do? You work intently to try to get to safety. But what if when you’re hungry, you can’t satisfy this need? You may become agitated or you may start feverishly trying to find food. If you’re in danger and you can’t get away, you may become combative. What if you found yourself chronically hungry or in danger? You would move into a state of survival. And your behavior would reflect this survival.
So then…how should we respond, if a traditional approach doesn’t work?
- Calm and firm. Remember this: calm and firm win the day! If you haven’t learned therapeutic parenting strategies or behavior management strategies, that’s okay. There’s time. Start with regulating yourself. If you can remain calm and firm in your response to your child, you may see them re-regulate and calm down quickly.
- Connect before you correct. I know you want to rush to correction and discipline. We all do. After all, that’s how our parents parented us. Plus, when our child calls names, or lashes out, or insults someone (namely our other children) we our instinct is to shut down the behavior and emphasize the boundaries. But you must remember, a child who is behaving out of their trauma (survival mode) is disconnected from the logical part of their brain (the prefrontal cortex). Thus, he or she is in their reptilian (brain stem) brain. We must help them move back into the prefrontal cortex. The only way to do this is to work to connect to them and help them re-regulate BEFORE we correct or discipline. Yes, those are still important.
Your response when behaviors have escalated is key. If you are calm, they will find a place of calm quicker. If your emotions are heightened, theirs will be also. This is step-by-step, and you won’t always hit the mark. In those instances, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward.