We all want to see our kids thrive and grow beyond the impacts of the trauma, abuse, or neglect they experienced before joining our homes. However, much of their healing depends upon the work we do on our attachment history, habits, and responses that will help our child heal from trauma. So how can you help your child heal from trauma and go on to thrive in your family?
1. Respond, don’t react.
When your child struggles in a cycle of trauma-rooted behaviors, it’s easy to get caught in the cycle with him. Your buttons are pushed, the peace in your home is disrupted, and sometimes, your own trauma is triggered. When you can take a breath and thoughtfully respond to the need under the behavior, you give the child a chance to breathe and re-set, too.
Habitually pausing this way sets up a re-wiring of appropriate and regulated responses that heal their brain. In that pause to formulate a thoughtful response, you also buffer your relationship with them against the ruptures that come of ranting reactions. Those rants create more pain and trauma for the child and the connection between you.
2. Identify how “just right” feels.
To help your child see what regulation looks like and feels like, you first need to experience it. Identify both the physical sensations and emotions of the experience. When you are tempted to react badly but gain a sense of calm and thoughtful response instead, take stock of how that feels. Note your breathing, heart rate, and thoughts, for example.
Think about how you got to this point of calm rather than dysregulation and point it out. If your child is younger, narrate the experience for your child from that calm space:
“Wow. Normally Mom would feel mad over that sassy speak. But I’ve been working on responding kindly even when I feel disrespected. And I feel so much better. My heart is calm, and I don’t feel sweaty at all.”
“Man, spilling milk all over my shoes used to make me so! mad! But I’ve been learning some calming tools, and I counted to ten and then did deep breathing to help me regulate. I feel proud of myself for not losing my cool.”
Your tweens or teens will want no part of Mom narrating an experience like that. However, you can share the same intention of identifying the feelings and how you learned to cope when talking over your day or an experience you had. Some families find movies or books helpful third-party tools for modeling and talking through those feelings.
3. Name the feelings.
It’s not uncommon for parents to struggle to name challenging emotions or hold conflicting or mixed feelings in one experience. However, to help your child heal from trauma, you must be willing to do the work of naming your emotions and normalizing that there are many emotions common to the human experience.
Many parents find it helpful to work with a counselor or therapist to unpack their struggles to name and give space for a wide range of emotions. Doing so is an excellent example for your child. After all, we encourage our kids to ask for help when they need it, don’t we? Seeking professional help normalizes therapy as a tool to prioritize mental health.
For many kids who have experienced trauma, big emotions are scary. Naming those emotions can feel scary, too – as if the label gives the feeling more power. So, if “Mad” is too frightening for your child, give it another name. Maybe your child’s “Mad” feels like a “Butch.” Develop scripts for facing Butch and coping with Butch in healthy ways with your child.
“Oh, is Butch back? Is that Scared behind Butch? Hmmm, I wonder if Butch is acting so big and ugly because Scared is pushing him. Let’s get them both out here and talk to them together, okay?”
Assure your child that mixed emotions are okay, and many people feel both hard and happy feelings in one body at once. Share a time when you felt mixed emotions and what you did about it. Again, narrating the experiences as they happen supports your child as he develops skills to hold space for his feelings.
4. Develop healthy self-esteem.
Healthy self-esteem can trace its roots back to confidence and security. Your child should hear frequently, and in a variety of ways, that you are in his corner, that you have his back. You build his sense of security that gives him a safe space from which to explore the world when he feels your confidence in him.
When building your child’s self-esteem, be wary of flattery or vague compliments. Shallow flattery breeds mistrust – your words mean less to the child if they sense you are not genuine. Instead, look for and call out the character traits that make your child special and unique. Provide opportunities for your child to shine and praise the effort, initiative, or diligence it took to shine.
5. Observe what behaviors are trauma-related.
When your child is melting down, or an event triggers his previous trauma, call it what it is.
“I noticed today when I yelled at your brother, you panicked and ran away. I think that yelling reminds you of the hard days when you lived with your mom. I’m sorry I was part of bringing that terrible memory back. I will work on using my indoor voice even if I’m frustrated.”
Once you have co-regulated with him, talk about what needs he expresses with that trauma-related behavior. Does he need reassurance that you will never hurt him? Could he be afraid of being moved out of your home if he misbehaves? Is his sense of emotional and physical safety shaken when you yell?
It’s very typical for all kids to take childish, but inappropriate, fun too far and jump headfirst into misbehavior. However, even when he’s engaging in typical childish misbehavior, it is also possible that he feels dysregulation he cannot manage. Come up with a re-direct for the misconduct and offer grace.
“Jumping from bed to bed to bed is dangerous, and you’ve been asked not to do that. Please get down, and let’s talk about what other physical activity you can do to get your energy out safely.”
Name the behaviors for what they are, but don’t leave the child hanging. The point is to help your child recognize what is going on inside his body and brain. Teach him to understand the difference between his trauma-related behaviors and just regular, run-of-the-mill childish antics. Labeling behaviors then meeting his need will help re-wire his brain and heal the impacts of trauma.
6. Educate yourself.
If you haven’t already, educate yourself on the basics of child development. Knowing typical milestones per age and stage of childhood through adolescence will help you set reasonable expectations. Keep in mind, many kids who have experienced trauma are not fully on-target for their chronological age so read up on a range of ages. CreatingaFamily.org recommends this series of books by Louise Bates Ames.
You might already grasp that your child’s behavior is an expression of a need, but what is the need? Consider starting with this CreatingaFamily.org podcast with Charlie Appelstein, M.S.W., President of Appelstein Training Resources, and author of No Such Thing as a Bad Kid.*
Once you’ve learned about a child’s underlying needs from his trauma history experiences, try these other CreatingaFamily.org resources. They will equip you with practical tools to meet your child’s needs and build trust even when correcting his behaviors.
- Practical Guide to Parenting a Child Exposed to Trauma
- Practical Tips for Disciplining Children Who Have Experienced Trauma
- Practical Tips for Disciplining While Maintaining Attachment
Take Care of Yourself
Helping your child heal from the trauma of his past is hard work and takes constant intention and attention. We say it often around here because it’s vital to be reminded. Be sure you are also taking care of yourself in practical ways. Again, consider working with a therapist or counselor as progress with your child uncovers additional areas where you need support. Eat healthily, stay active, and prioritize sleep for the whole family. Build time into your calendar for fun as a family – laughter and happy memories will be the glue that holds you together when the trauma rises. It really is good medicine.
How are you doing with these parenting tools to help your child heal from trauma? Tell us about it in the comments!
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Image Credits: Selene; Nattachai Noogure; Valentina Powers