How to Stunt the Growth of Anxiety in Your Kiddo

Right now we are living in a season when the simplest tasks can seem overwhelming. Going to the grocery stores isn’t the chore it used to be. Now it’s full of even more stress and tension. We don’t know if someone will bump into us, yell at us, or if we are crossing the aisle at the wrong time.

As much as we tell ourselves, I will not let this bother me (raising my hand here), it does. It’s a palatable feeling in the air. The anxiety settles down on all of us collectively. As much as we feel it, our kiddos do too.

Our kiddos  mirror us. If we feel stressed, they feel stressed.

If we feel overwhelmed, they feel overwhelmed.

If we feel anxious, our anxiety adds to their stress shaped brain and squeezes.

This is true for any kiddo, even more so for kiddos from hard places and who has a capital letter syndrome.

My anxiety Story

When I was growing up, there was a lot of political unrest. Adults around me had an unwritten rule – Kids should understand how serious this is. I didn’t know what “this” was, and I wasn’t sure how to act. So, I did what any kiddo would do in the situation – I felt anxious. My anxiety grew over the years and became my constant companion in my adulthood. I felt as if I SHOULD FEEL ANXIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING. So I did. I was like the character in The Great Divorce with the creature on his shoulder:

“What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear.”

My anxiety is like the lizard. It whispers things in my ear, and I act upon them. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the growth of anxiety in a child.

Tips for Stunting the growth of Anxiety

With my experience in mind (and science) I’m sharing a few tips to stunt the growth of anxiety in an already anxious kid.

  1. Tell them what’s going on. Your kids need not know everything. On the flip side, they don’t need to know nothing. Not knowing breeds anxiety. Whatever the situation, let them know what is age appropriate for them. This applies to any life situation. If Great Grandma dies, a five-year-old needs to know the truth. Not, she is floating in the air. But don’t go as far as the embalming process. 
  2. Let your kiddo talk about it. Whatever it is. One of the healthiest things a kiddo can do after a tragedy is talk. For example, my two-year-old Granddaughter fell while playing and suffered a concussion. At the ER she had a CT scan. Later, via Facetime, she told me several times about the giant camera that took a picture of her (and her daddy’s) head. She retold her story of falling and her ER visit. We make progress in our healing journey by telling our stories to an empathetic listener. So do kiddos. When something happens to a kiddo, it tempts us to tell them they will be all right. It’s tempting to tell them to forget it and move on. The truth is the world is full of adults who never talked about “it” and who have never moved on.
  3. Realize although your kiddo may have a stress shaped brain, anxiety can also become a habit. When I was a young mom, struggling with depression and anxiety, a friend recommended a book to me (that I can’t remember the name of!). The author had many of the same anxiety driven habits. She didn’t like closed-in places; she didn’t want to do anything in which she wasn’t in control. On a ski trip, she asked an exuberant  friend – Aren’t you anxious about going down the hill. To which her friend replied, “Yes, isn’t it glorious!” I’m paraphrasing here. The point is one woman took the anxious feeling, and it caused her to miss out. Another took the feeling and let her body feel it and felt joyful about it. While I’m not saying you can teach your kiddo to feel joyful about everything they are afraid of, it’s good to look for the habit of anxiety. When you see it, talk it through, work it through. Do whatever you need to help your kiddo form a new habit. “I feel anxious” can turn into “I feel excited!”
  4. Talk through an event before you go. Guess what. I still do this to quell my anxiety. One of my adult ways for handling this is looking at routes on the GPS. I ask someone who has traveled it how many tunnels there are. I plan my rest breaks when traveling alone. I count out my change for toll booths. These practices lessen my anxiety. Sure, I run into unknowns, traffic jams, a pit stop, my cooler sliding off the seat so I can’t reach my food (true story). I handle these unknowns better if I know the majority about the trip. Kids need to talk through events even more than adults do. It moves them to their upstairs brain. They can look at the event logically and stunt the growth of anxiety.

Remember, anxiety grows if fed. I fed mine for years. Now, I’m working on starving it out. I use these tips with my kiddos. They know them so well; they use them on me! 

I hope these tips help you and your kiddos. Do you have your own tip? Share it here.

Why is my child hoarding/having food issues again and what can I do?

My Food Issues

When I was in college, I struggled with food issues. I’m sure it began before then, but symptoms peaked during my college years. I began severely restricting my calories, allowing myself to eat a bowl of oatmeal as my one meal of the day. Once I ate, I worked out, walked with weights on my ankles for five miles at a time. I was slowly killing myself. I just didn’t know it. What I felt was light and powerful. Not eating was something I could control in a very out of control world.

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I read this statement in a fitness book “food is fuel.” I had never thought about the concept before. I grew up in a home where we ate meals together at a table. It wasn’t just food, it was family time. It was healthy food as well as healthy connection time.  I don’t know how and why I went astray. I don’t think anyone could have “talked me” out of my food issues by telling me they were “bad” or “wrong.” I also don’t know why I enjoyed the floaty feeling not eating gave me. I don’t enjoy it now.

But this isn’t about me. I say all that to say I understand food issues. I know they aren’t very understandable or clear to most people. It’s like those people who don’t understand depression who say, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it.” That doesn’t help at all.

Three Thoughts on Why Food Issues are Back

Maybe during this social distancing crazy time, your child who has made progress in food issues has suddenly regressed. Issues you thought were in the past are now in your present. Why?

I have a few thoughts on why.

  1. When stressed we regress. Think about that for a moment. During this crazy season, what’s one habit you had left behind that you’ve picked up like a comfy cardigan. Maybe it’s smoking. Eating tons of sweets. Staying glued to your phone. Biting your nails. If you have a habit fresh in your mind, you will better understand your child’s regression. He is stressed even if he can’t verbalize it.
  2. Food is something controllable. See my story above. Looking back, it was probably a bad idea for an introvert like me who had strong family ties to go to the big university. It stressed me in ways I couldn’t verbalize. Gone were the family dinners. The devotions with breakfast. So I turned against food. I controlled my environment by not eating. It couldn’t tell me what to do. Maybe food for your kiddo is comfort. Maybe stealing/hoarding makes him feel as if he has a voice. To explain this phenomenon, Dawn Davenport wrote an article titled “Hoarding, Overeating, & Food Obsessions in Adopted & Foster Kids” for Creating a Family. In it, she notes, “Many adopted and foster children with a history of food insecurity are very interested in food when they first arrive home, which presents as a collection of behaviors often referred to as ‘hoarding.’ Hoarding is a natural reaction to food insecurity and may present as eating quickly, stuffing large amounts of food in their mouths, stealing and sneaking food, and getting upset when food is limited.”
  1. When in survival mode, we are impulsive beings. We don’t think about the consequences. I wasn’t thinking about the long term consequences to my physical body I was creating. Plus, no one really knew how much I was restricting my calories. I fooled them by keeping a cup of coffee in my hands at all family events (yikes, am I doing that now?)

So what do we do?

If someone would have been aware of  my food issues, they could have helped me if done in the right way. “Food is fuel” totally changed my mindset about food. It sent me to my upstairs brain and I had to think about food in a new way. 

Impulsiveness is a sign we are in our downstairs brain. The executive function is out to lunch (pun intended). How do we engage the upstairs brain?

  1. During a time the kiddo is not in impulsivity mode, teach some science. With younger kids, teach them to recognize the feeling of a full stomach. Talk about food and how it makes you feel. Let them do the same. When I eat ____ I feel… Let them be honest even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Work on helping the kiddo recognize the feeling of satiety. Have him put his hand on his stomach and  become aware of when it feels full. This is not a one-time practice or a quick fix. It takes years. Also, to develop a healthy relationship with food, it’s important to know which foods are healthy and why we eat them. 

 The point is to get the kiddos in their upstairs brain. This is where logic lives. For older kiddos -teach them as much science as they can handle. Find info like this for them to read on their own (instead of preaching it) –

“Eating sugar also affects how we act and feel each day. If you’ve ever tried to give up sugar, you know that during the first few days you are feeling cranky and miserable, almost like a drug addict without his or her drug of choice. Sugar consumption causes a hormonal roller coaster of alternating high levels of insulin and blood sugar. These hormonal shifts can dramatically affect your attitude and your ability to concentrate during the day. Sugar has been found to be a major contributor to diseases and symptoms like:

 • Atherosclerosis 

• Attention deficit disorder and attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder • Behavior problems

 • Cancer 

• Chronic fatigue syndrome 

• Colon cancer 

• Coronary heart disease 

• Food intolerance 

• Kidney disease 

• Liver disease 

• Malnutrition 

• Osteoporosis 

• Overgrowth of yeast, especially Candida albicans 

• Tooth decay 

• Violent tendencies”

Isabel Price, New Life Promise
  1. Don’t make the issue about the child. Whatever you do, don’t make any eating struggles about the child. Avoid saying things like, “You’re going to get fat if you eat like that!” Remember, the point is to develop a healthy relationship with food, not to have a restrictive, punitive mentality. Teaching kids about healthy choices and how to recognize their own feeling of “full” is a better way to address eating struggles.
  2. Give your child choice and voice. One of the ways you can give your child choice and voice is a snack basket. I did this with my kiddos when they were struggling. It helped them feel secure knowing there was a snack available at all times.

Food hoarding and food aversion are not something your kids made up to annoy you or other people. Food issues are a behavior with a need behind them. Overcoming them takes time, research, patience, and a ton of self-sacrifice — but it is possible.

Training With Sweets and Events Training

Yesterday, I shared ended my post with a “How To do a Training Session.” You can find that here.

Today lets move to types of training.

Training With Sweets

I put a handful of M&Ms on the dining room table in front of each child. I then gave them instructions about which color M&M to pick up.  If they listened, they got to eat that piece of candy. Failure to listen meant they missed out on the sweet — but there usually wasn’t much of that, and there was always a chance to try again. 

This training had several positive outcomes — the kids learned their colors in English without shame, and they got a sweet reward. There were many chances for redos, and the kids even coached each other by saying things like “That’s not brown!” and pointing to proper color. That last one is so important. The kids learned that families help each other.

I had training sessions with money, as well. I kept a gallon-sized bag full of coins: quarters, nickels, dimes, fifty-cent pieces, and pennies. I dumped the money on the floor and helped the kids work through identifying the coins. After a session, if a child could name a coin without my help, I gave him that coin or a handful of coins. The kids would spend their money on gum or a candy bar during our next grocery trip. This reward was delayed, but it reinforced the lesson. 

Training relieves the child of unreasonable expectations and puts the responsibility on the parent, where it belongs. Training can be lighthearted and fun rather than dictatorial. Most of the infractions we punish for can be eliminated by practicing outside the moment.

Events Training

After obedience training came events training. In this category is the library training I mentioned yesterday. Before I took the kids to the library for the first time, we played library at home, using our bookshelves to practice.

Obedience training must come first. Once children have caught on to listening and following simple commands, then you can add event training. 

When I first attended church with all my newbies, they sat in the regular service with Jerry and me instead of attending children’s church or the nursery. They were not ready to assimilate into the church culture. Since they had never attended a church service, they did not know how to conduct themselves. I could not expect them to know what to do in a church service — to stand during worship, to be silent during prayer, to sit while the message was being delivered, and so on.

To practice, I set up a church in my living room, complete with two rows of chairs. I had the kids sit on the chairs while we practiced a short service. I sang a few lines of a song, “preached” a short sermon, and then let them take turns being “pastor.” Through this simple training game, they learned when to sit, when to stand, and what cues to listen for. The training also generally relieved their anxiety regarding what church services entail.

Knowing what to expect is extremely important for the child with a stress-shaped brain. When going into an unfamiliar situation, the child’s fear is heightened, and he may have an extreme reaction that seems out of proportion with the actual event. Even if you’re just preparing for a family picnic, a child will often attempt to control the situation when he feels out of control.

We also practiced going out to eat. I set the table with my colorful fiestaware, silverware, glasses — the works. Then we filed into the “restaurant” and took our seats. We practiced placing the napkins on our laps, pretending to eat while having quiet, polite conversation, asking for a menu, ordering, and thanking the waiter or waitress.

Restaurant Manners

It amazes me to see parents assume that a four-year-old (or any child, for that matter) will pick up restaurant manners just because the family goes out to eat. I often hear comments like “You should know better!” or “I can’t believe you just did that!”

It reminds me of the Guire family’s first fast-food dining experience in Poland. Thanks to Pani Eugenia, we had taken a field trip and found a McDonald’s to eat lunch at. The new Guires had never been to a McDonald’s, and I wondered if they had ever been out to eat at all.

Jerry and I were watching carefully. We didn’t expect restaurant manners; we expected that the kids would run around or, worse, run out into the parking lot. We divided the group and each watched a contingent. Getting through the line and sitting down with the food was organized chaos, but once all the little ones had a happy meal bag in hand, they settled down to sitting or kneeling on their chairs. Everything was going better than we had hoped. They may have been too enthralled with the strange cuisine to act up. 

Ania had gotten a milkshake, as many of the group had. She removed the lid and jammed a hot fry into the cold contents. She pulled the gooey, drippy fry out and took a bite. Milkshake covered her hands, chin and shirt. She laboriously continued the ritual, messily coating each fry with shake. 

“Look what she is doing,” Audrey pointed out.

Several other youngsters had already followed suit and were also a gloppy, sticky mess. But nobody reprimanded Ania for her behavior. It wasn’t ideal, but she didn’t know any better. It was difficult to clean and all of her followers up, but I couldn’t fault them for shoving their whole fists into their milkshakes. Like her, they didn’t know any better.

This is exactly the kind of behavior I often see parents reprimanding small children for, even though the children have probably never attended a seminar on proper restaurant etiquette. 

For several years, my family ran a catering business with another family. Before an event, we would have a meeting with our “staff” (their kids and ours with a few other teens sprinkled in). During the meeting, we handed out job assignments and went over protocol for those jobs. 

For example, when refilling a coffee cup, you should take the cup off the table with your right hand. Turn from the table and refill it, then carefully place it back on the table. If you’re serving punch, hold the cup over the top of the punch bowl while filling it to avoid dripping on the white table cloth.

I could go on, but the point is this: Don’t expect good behavior if training is neglected. In the catering scenario, if I had sent a sixteen-year-old to serve a fresh pot of coffee without any training, disastrous things could have happened. He could have asked the guest to hold the cup while he poured and risked burning the guest with the scalding liquid.

I know I am going on and on about the same point, but for good reason. Training is such an overlooked tool, and exploring it in several contexts will make it easier to understand, remember, and implement.

Adoptive and foster parents face many behavioral challenges, and you may struggle with what to do in the moment. Where and when is a child supposed to learn these unwritten age-appropriate rules?

It is necessary to have a correcting and connecting response immediately following a behavior. However, you shouldn’t stop there. If a particular behavior continues to happen, the proactive approach is to practice the proper behavior outside the moment. The ETC Parent Training manual encourages parents to “turn to other tools that can help them (kiddos) learn and grow outside of the moment — when you and they are calm and they are better able to learn.”

*This article is a an excerpt from How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are In Chaos- Grab your copy here.

Training verses Discipline With Kiddos Who Have Had Trauma (Or Any Kiddos)

Training 

Training is often overlooked when it comes to child rearing. In general, parents are more likely to use discipline and punishment in an attempt to shape and mold their children. 

However, it is much more effective to train children in advance for proper behavior then it is to punish them after the fact. 

Just imagine starting a retail job with no training. You are put on the register at a popular, busy department store. You have no clue how to run the computerized register, and the customers start flocking in. You attempt to ring up a purchase, and when you make a mistake, the manager stands behind you and yells, “That’s wrong! You should know better! That’s not how to do it!” But how was I supposed to know? you think to yourself. After every infraction, there is more yelling and more correction, with some punishment added in. 

This is how most children are raised. I see it every day. Recently, I was in the Walmart parking lot, and I overheard a parent saying, “Don’t tell me you forgot your shoes again.”  I expected to see a seven- or eight-year-old child get out of the van, shoeless and contrite. Instead, a toddler began a sorrowful wail as the parent launched into a cursing tirade about forgetting shoes. Really? How was he supposed to know? It doesn’t make sense to yell, punish, or discipline a child over a practice he hasn’t been properly trained for.

A poster with the poem “Children Learn What They Live”hangs on the wall at Pediatric Dentistry, where all my kids used to go:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.

If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.

If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.

If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.

If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.

If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.

If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.

If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.

If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

“Children Learn What They Live” by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

Why Train (or Practice Outside the Moment)

This poem always reminded me of the concept of training — or, as Dr. Purvis called it, practicing outside the moment. It made me think of all the times I criticized my children for doing something right when they really didn’t know what was right. It must have been confusing and confounding for them to be corrected for something they didn’t know was wrong.

One of the definitions of train in Webster’s 1828 dictionary includes these words: “To train or train up; to educate; to teach; to form by instruction or practice; to bring up.” That definition was followed by Proverbs 22:6:

“Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

The same dictionary defines punishment this way: “Any pain or suffering inflicted on a person for a crime or offense, by the authority to which the offender is subject, either by the constitution of God or of civil society. The punishment of the faults and offenses of children by the parent, is by virtue of the right of government with which the parent is invested by God himself. This species of punishment is chastisement or correction.”

This definition seems archaic. Our culture tends to shy away from words like offenses, chastisement, and correction. The new way is compassion and understanding — until the child does something that is out of line with the parent’s inner expectations. Then all nicities are often thrown out the window. We have all seen it and have most likely done it ourselves. (Raising my hand here.) We yell, rant, rave, put the kids in time out, take things away, or threaten with gritted teeth. Remember the mama cussing out her toddler for not having shoes on? We call all of the above discipline.

“Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences.” – The Whole-Brain Child

It’s only common sense to understand that a human cannot learn without being taught. It’s true that children mirror us, and some kids are a quick study. But think about kiddos who have come from disorganized parenting, where the rules and expectations shift every day. It makes sense that training might be a little harder for them.

My new Guires had not been taught that they should be obedient to persons of authority. Instead, circumstances had caused them to develop survival skills that included disobedience. That’s how they got by. Life trained them in the best ways to survive in that orphanage, and they stuck to what they knew.

More on Training/Practicing Outside the Moment tomorrow!

*This article is and excerpt from How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

Journaling Your Child’s Triggers Part 2

Love is Enough

“Love is enough” is a common misconception among parents in general, but even more so with kids who have experienced trauma. Kids who have had trauma seem to have a built-in button-locating radar. They find our buttons and push them over and over. It’s natural that we parents may think they are pushing our buttons or misbehaving to make us mad.

In reality, their behavior stems from early trauma and its effect on them. Most children that come into foster care, orphanages, or other institutions are disorganized in their attachment and stuck in dis-integration. The people who were supposed to care for them hurt them. This sets off a constant warning bell in the brains of these children. We call the result a stress-shaped brain.

Early Life Experience

Early life experience has shaped their brains to expect the worst and be on high alert all the time. This response is known as hypervigilance. The hypervigilant child jerks at every sound.  They don’t recognize their body’s own signals of hunger, thirst, and rest.

Normally, parents seamlessly teach regulation. When the child is hungry, the mother feeds him. If he is cold, she wraps him in a blanket. If he is tired, she rocks him to sleep. This pattern continues, with the mother regulating for the child until he begins to regulate for himself. He asks for a drink when he is thirsty. He puts on his sweater when he is cold, or grabs his blankie when he’s ready for bed. 

Kids who haven’t had this early regulation don’t know how to regulate. This doesn’t just apply to hunger and thirst, though those are the biggies. It also applies to behavior. Behavior is what we see externally, but it’s not the whole picture. We need to learn to watch the external behaviors as a clue to whether the child can regulate internally or not.

“Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most other challenging experiences of parenting – and life- are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration.”

The Whole-Brain Child

Neurons that fire together wire together. In plain English, the more a behavior is acted out or a trigger is acted upon, the more it becomes a pattern in the brain. It is as if the road is dug out, graveled, and paved by repeated experiences. The paved road then becomes the primary travel route.  

Adoption is messy. Children who are adopted from hard places have trouble verbalizing their feelings. They struggle with self-regulation and want to control everything and everyone around them. Trouble is, if we parents aren’t careful, we end up focusing on the behavior instead of digging deeper into the root of the problem. It’s quick and easy to think the child is misbehaving to get on our last nerve. We tend to think the child wants to make us angry.

The poor choices in behavior speak what the child is unable to state verbally.

Put Yourself in Your Child’s Shoes

Have you ever been in a situation when you felt anxious or afraid for no apparent or logical reason? Instead of considering a situation your child was in, think of a situation that you have been in. Think of a time when you should have felt safe but instead you felt anxious.  Go back to that feeling for a minute, and as terrible as it is, let it wash over you. Imagine feeling like that all the time. That may be how your child is feeling. 

Five Bs Affected by Trauma

Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. 

Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there. Take a few minutes and read about the Five Bs – start here. Listen to the podcast series on each B. There is a lot of information to read/listen to. Take your time. It will still be available long after this series is over. Maybe start with one B. Armed with this information, write down some of your child’s triggers with this information as your foundation.

*This is an excerpt from the course How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

Interested in the course? Read more about it and try a free module!

Journaling Your Child’s Triggers Part 1

Journaling Your Child’s Triggers Part 1

Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not. 

 Key to remember– As Dr. Purvis reminds us, our children were harmed in and through relationships, and they will find healing in and through nurturing relationships.

Trauma is much more far-reaching than we assumed in the past. We have always been told that children are resilient and they are, but there are effects that trauma leaves behind. It affects every area of life for a child.

 Trauma harms the brain. Its footprint can be seen in these areas: Social, learning, behavior problems (regulation), physical development 

Dr. Purvis calls children who have had trauma in their lives “children from hard places.”

“The passage of time for these little ones does not in itself reduce trauma’s impact to a bearable level. The trauma contaminates the meaning of life and is part of early personality formation. Neurobiologically, trauma shapes the developing brain.”

-Deborah Gray, Nurturing Adoptions

Did your child have early trauma? If you aren’t sure, read the “Six Risk Factors” and listen to the podcast on the subject (linked in the article). Also, you can find a handy printable resource here. 

Today, take some time to think about your child’s history. This will help you begin to recognize the triggers. Write down the risk factors she encountered before coming home to you. Take some time to pray and process how these things can be affecting her behavior. 

We’ll cover more on this topic tomorrow. Feel free to comment, share, or ask a question!

*This is an excerpt from the course How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

Interested in the course? Read more about it and try a free module!

8 “Instead of” Tips for Parenting Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma

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.

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.

“Instead of” Parenting Suggestions

  • Instead of a lecture, use simple language (8- 12 words total).
  • Instead of waiting for behavior to intensify, respond quickly.
  • Instead of giving orders, offer simple choices.
  • Instead of just correcting, give immediate retraining and a “re-do.”
  • Instead of expecting a child to know, clarify expectations.
  • Instead of isolating when a child is dysregulated, keep the child near you.
  • Instead of only noticing the “bad” behaviors, offer praise for success.
  • Instead of taking it personally, remember there is a need behind the behavior.

Instead of a lecture, use simple language (8- 12 words total).

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.”

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.

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?

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.

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.
  • 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.

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.

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?

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.”

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 bed 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 the home. In that case, you need to get professional help. Don’t try to go it alone.