Traditional parenting techniques are not always effective when parenting a child with a history of trauma. Traditional parenting techniques include time-outs, behavior charts and removing privileges due to poor behavior. Sending a child away to a corner or to their room can cause them to feel rejected, afraid, unworthy, unlovable and alone. Before your child joined your family through adoption they likely lived in fear, were left alone, or felt lonely. They had to provide for themselves; they worried for their life, their safety, maybe their sibling’s safety. Your child was sent away from their first family, for whatever reason, and discipline techniques such as time-outs can retraumatize them by causing them to fear that they will lose yet another family.
Traditional parenting techniques such as sticker charts and timeouts are behavioral approaches that may occasionally work to “fix” a behavior, but do nothing to help your child heal and address any of the underlying issues like attachment, loss, or self-worth. If you focus on each individual behavior, you’re going to feel like you’re playing a game of whack-a-mole. Once you get one behavior “fixed,” a new one will pop up in its place because the underlying issues are not resolved. Instead of focusing on the behavior, use a holistic, whole-child and relational approach and look at each opportunity as a chance to connect. What is your end goal? Is your goal to punish or to teach? Teaching happens best through a connection and relationship and healing from within. This is especially true of teaching children with a history of trauma.
Instead of asking “what can I do to ‘fix’ my child’s behavior?” start asking “what is driving my child’s behavior? What does my child need?” Parenting sometimes requires detective work to recognize the needs of the child and accommodate to best meet their needs. Another big part of connected parenting is responding by asking, “What can I do to improve my relationship with my child?” This is especially important when your child is acting out. Sending a child away does not improve your relationship or provide what he needs in a moment where he is hurting the most. However, in the moment when your child is screaming, kicking, and throwing everything, the last thing on your mind is, “How can I use this as an opportunity to connect?” But if you can view their behavior as a cry for help, and the only way they know how to let you know that they need something, it can help you have more compassion and understanding that they really can’t control their behavior. They’re not being willful or disobedient. They don’t know how to communicate their needs yet, and they need you to help them.
Instead of time-outs or sending your child away to his room, use time-ins to show your child that you’re there for him and love him. Time-ins might look like sitting with him, holding him, rocking him, talking, or just being with him until he is calm and ready to talk through the choices he made. When a child is dysregulated, he is unable to learn or think logically, so conversations and discipline need to wait until he is regulated. Time-ins provide a chance to regulate. It helps to have a designated time-in spot with sensory items to help your child calm down. Sensory items may include a weighted blanket, fidgets, stress balls, calming glitter bottles, books, music, bubbles, and coloring books.
Trauma causes brain damage; by this I mean actual holes burnt into a child’s brain tissue. Many times, it isn’t a matter of they won’t do XYZ, it is a matter of they can’t, especially when they’re dysregulated. When a child is dysregulated, they need you to help them to regulate, and they cannot talk through their choices/behavior when they’re dysregulated. For a child who has lived in chaos for so long, chaos is what feels normal to them, so they may create or seek chaos in order to feel normal. When your child is making poor choices, give them a warning; if they don’t stop, redirect them to a different activity. For example, if my kids are playing tag and they keep fighting I would redirect by offering an equally pleasurable replacement activity, I might ask them to try to make soccer goals while I play goalie, come inside and play a game with me or go on a bike ride around the neighborhood. I’ve learned that telling my child to find something to do is setting them up for failure, instead I need to offer options and be willing to participate myself. The best solution to conflict is preventing it from happening to begin with by altering the environment.
Neural pathways are strengthened into habits through the repetition and practice of thinking, feeling and acting. This is why redos and role playing can be so effective to practice appropriate behavior followed up with praise for making good choices. Your child has many years of learned experiences that you would like him to unlearn and these changes will not occur quickly. Have you ever tried to stop a habit like chewing your fingernails? It is very difficult to change a habit overnight and takes motivation to change, lots of will power and consistency. Unfortunately, many times our children are not motivated by anything to change their behavior. They’ve experienced the ultimate loss so there isn’t much you can do to them or consequence you can give them that is going to make much of an impact.
Consequences may still need to be given but they should be leveled at the behavior not the child. For example, if your child cannot handle screen time it may need to be limited or limited to a specific time each day so he knows what to expect. Every child is different and should have a different set of expectations but don’t put your child in a situation where they’re going to fail. Make your child’s world smaller or bigger based on what they can handle. Ultimately, you want your child to succeed but make sure you are providing him with opportunities to succeed.
Connected parenting is not permissive parenting; it is simply meeting your child’s needs through relationship and connection. It’s important for parents to be in control, but control does not equal rigidity, it requires consistency and predictability. The more predicable you are in your parenting the less fight you will have over control. It is still very important to have boundaries and limits and consistency in your parenting. The focus is on relationship and meeting unmet needs in your child. Your child needs you to set boundaries because they don’t have the internal control to understand what those boundaries are or should be. Your child will test you because they need to know that you can handle them and no matter what they do you’re not going anywhere.
For more information about connected parenting, we recommend the following books:
The Connected Child, by Dr. Karyn Purvis
The Whole Brained Child, by Daniel J. Siegel
The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog by Bruce Perry
Photo Credit: Valentina Yachichurova