7 R’s to Remember for Raising Children Impacted by Trauma
The “R’s” of Trauma Parenting
1. Realistic Expectations
Having realistic expectations in raising children impacted by trauma is a good place to start. When a child’s brain has been rewired because of trauma, there are certain things that are just going to be harder for them. If we expect too much, we’ll set both ourselves and our children up for frustration. However, this doesn’t mean we should have low expectations either. Rather, we need to learn to see past their behaviors to what’s going on inside them, basing our expectations in that reality.
Children who have experienced trauma may have extreme reactions to “normal” things at the drop of a hat. Because their brains have been programmed in “fight or flight” mode, at the first sign of threat (or perceived threat), they may lash out in anger. Or, perhaps dissolve into tears over something that seems insignificant to others.
It is not uncommon for children who have gone through trauma to act several years younger than their chronological age. A 7-year-old may have tantrums like a toddler, or a 12-year-old may act more like an 8-year-old in social settings, etc. It can be confusing when you see the same 7-year-old who’s throwing tantrums on the floor demonstrate academic ability above their grade level. It’s tempting to say things like “You’re so smart, why can’t you just act your age?!”
The reality is, your child may be “stuck” at a younger stage of emotional development. Until you fully understand and accept that trauma truly causes gaps in development, your expectation will be for your child’s behaviors to line up with their age. Once you understand they just can’t always act their age, it will be easier to set realistic expectations and begin to parent them at their emotional age rather than their chronological age. (This will lower everyone’s stress level!)
Children who have experienced abuse or neglect in previous relationships may have a hard time forming secure relationships (attachment) moving forward. Relational trauma happens when a child tries but is unable to attach to his caregiver because the caregiver either cannot or won’t properly care for or nurture the child. As a result of not forming secure attachments, the child may end up with deeply-rooted insecurities, trust-issues, anger, and a compromised ability to form proper attachments to their new caregivers.
Because of this, developing a healthy relationship in every way possible is crucial.¹ The good news is that over time, it is possible (though not guaranteed) that what was broken in harmful relationships can also be restored through healthy relationships. Being intentional about eye contact, gentle touch, and quality time will help build the connection. Keeping promises will build trust, laying a foundation for a healthy relationship.
3. Respond Calmly
When our children are having meltdown moments it’s all too easy to respond with our own escalated emotions and overreact.
Before attempting to help your child calm down, check your own response.
Raging emotions easily feed off other escalated emotions creating situations that rarely end well! When big people respond just as emotionally as the little people, things can easily get to crisis point.
If you find yourself in a highly charged emotional situation, do what you can to remove yourself for just a bit and regroup. Even if it’s only closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths, try to regain some semblance of calm before coming back to work with your child. It’s not easy, but as the big person, you need to do your best to tame those emotions.
4. Repair the Rupture
As fallible human beings, we won’t respond calmly all the time– we just won’t. We will inevitably lose our cool, overreact, and say things we shouldn’t. Instead of berating ourselves after messing up, the most important thing we can do is to make repairs as quickly as possible. Dr. Karyn Purvis teaches that if the damage goes un-repaired the effects can be long-lasting². However, if apologies are made, mistakes talked about and repaired, your relationship with your child may actually be strengthened by the process. It’s also a great opportunity for modeling repentance and forgiveness. When we are willing to admit we are wrong, apologize, and seek forgiveness, we are leading our children by example. It is humbling but so powerful!
(Learn more about repairing mistakes here)
Just as we need the chance to repair any damage we have done, our children should also have the opportunity to get things right. In addition to helping them apologize and make amends, we can help them succeed by offering them a “redo” if they’ve spoken or acted inappropriately.
Instead of responding with a swift negative consequence, try saying things like “We don’t use those words in this family, would you like to try that again?” Or “That wasn’t a kind way to speak to your brother, how about trying that again?” You may need to coach them through what IS appropriate, as they may not know yet. Provide opportunities for them to get it right and praise them for the corrected behaviors instead of just coming down on them for what they got wrong. Doing this will build their confidence and help them succeed.
As mentioned in “R” number one, your child may have some developmental gaps which may cause overreactions, meltdowns, and inappropriate behaviors. To help avoid some of these moments, you may want to rehearse with your child how things should be done in certain situations– before the situation arises.
For example, if transitions are tricky for your child, preparing them in advance for what’s coming next will ease some of their anxiety. Walk them through what may go on, how you would like them to act, what the outcome will be if they misbehave, etc.
Or, if separations are difficult, rehearse and reassure them about that process: “Mom and Dad will be gone for a few hours. We will be back. Grandma and Grandpa will be with you the whole time. You might feel sad and miss us– that’s ok! We’ll miss you, too, but we’ll be together again soon!”
Rehearsing possible situations will benefit your child by easing fears of the “unknown.’ New situations can be especially anxiety producing. Giving your child as much information as possible ahead of time will lessen their stress and hopefully, inappropriate behaviors.
It doesn’t have to be a lengthy process but “rehearsing” is a habit that usually produces good results.
7. Restore the years the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25).
Even if we were able to implement every single recommended method to help our children heal from their traumas, it would never be enough. Let our constant prayer be that God would restore all the years the locusts have eaten. Pray that the gaping wounds inflicted in previous relationships would be filled with His mercy and love. Trust God to restore and redeem that which was lost. May He, the ultimate healer, bring life, healing, and peace to the areas that were broken and wounded.
Rest in Him,
Read 7 more tips:
- The Whole-Brain Child, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
- The Connected Child, Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D., David R. Cross, Ph.D., and Wendy Lyons Sunshine